A staff of 130, turnover in the tens of millions: Tony Blair has created enormous wealth, but nobody knows quite how.
'His lifestyle involves moving between five-star hotels and mansions'
Tony Blair was merely a prime minister when he made his last major speech at the Trimdon Labour Club in 2007. After being burdened with the inconvenience of running the country for 10 years, he could not stop grinning as he announced that he was quitting not only Downing Street, but Parliament itself, freeing him from the constraints of public service.
On Tuesday, as Mr Blair returned to Trimdon to endorse Gordon Brown, his former constituents got their first close-up view of just how much better life had become for “our Tony” since he began his “journey” (as he would say) into the private sector.
With skin burnished to a dark ochre by unbroken exposure to the world’s sunniest climes and worry lines long faded away, Mr Blair made those around him look anaemic. Gone were the “blokeish” glottal stops in his speech that used to remind us that he was a “pretty straight sort of guy”, replaced by a mid-Atlantic twang that was far more user-friendly to his fee-paying audiences around the world.
But it was not Mr Blair’s physical appearance, nor even his glowing tribute to his sometime friend Mr Brown, that provided the greatest surprise of his visit to Sedgefield. It was the discovery that Mr Blair now employed 130 people in his ever-expanding business and charity empire, with the wage bill for “Blair Incorporated” thought to be £10 million to £20 million.
Incredible as it may seem, it means that all previous estimates of Mr Blair’s personal wealth — usually put at £20 million since he left office — appear to have been more than a little on the conservative side.
Sources close to Mr Blair say his earnings are “several multiples” of the figures that have been quoted in the past, suggesting that £50 million or even £60 million would be closer to the mark, although his spokesman described such a suggestion as “simply ludicrous”.
We will never know the truth, of course, because Mr Blair has set up a mind-boggling web of companies through which he can channel his earnings without having to declare publicly all of his income. The only two Blair companies that filed accounts had a combined income of £11.7 million in 2008-09.
However, a conversation Mr Blair had this week with his former agent, John Burton, provided a telling glimpse of what lay behind his veil of secrecy.
“I said, 'How many people do you employ’, and he said 130,” Mr Burton later disclosed, unable to disguise his bewilderment. “I mean it was 25 about two years ago and he said to me [then], 'I have got to earn £5 million a year to pay the wages’, so God knows what he has got to earn now to pay the wages.”
The fact that Mr Blair now employed five times as many people would suggest that his wage bill could be five times as high, though the real figure was likely to be rather less, as most of his more recent appointments were thought to have been in relatively junior posts.
Nevertheless, Mr Blair is undoubtedly generous to his most senior staff, many of whom loyally followed him from Downing Street to The Office of Tony Blair, as he calls his umbrella organisation.
They include Ruth Turner, 39, Mr Blair’s former head of government relations, who was arrested during the “cash for honours” investigation (though not charged with any offence). She is chief executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, a charity that promotes better understanding between religions, and is richly rewarded.
Its accounts show that its two highest-paid staff, one of whom is Miss Turner, earn between £110,000 and £120,000 per year, which comes from charitable income. That is more than the chief executive of Oxfam, which employs 5,000 people.
Miss Turner’s impressive pay packet is likely to be matched by others working in Mr Blair’s headquarters in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. Top earners are thought to include Matthew Doyle, Mr Blair’s political director, who was his deputy director of communications at No 10; Kate Gross, the chief executive of Mr Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, who was one of his private secretaries; and Jeanette Pickard, who was manager of Mr Blair’s constituency office in Sedgefield before being elevated to chief executive of the Tony Blair Sports Foundation.
However much he pays his staff, it seems there is plenty left over for life’s little comforts. One recent guest at South Pavilion in Wotton Underwood, Bucks, which is Tony and Cherie Blair’s £5.75 million country house, said the couple “live like royalty”, with up to 20 staff tending to their needs.
“They are living far more lavishly then when Tony was prime minister,” said the source. “Their country home is incredible. They seem to have a lot of staff and the furnishings are breathtaking. A lot of the people he socialises with are billionaires, and his lifestyle involves moving between five-star hotels and mansions around the world, always in private jets and helicopters.”
In one recent spree, Mrs Blair spent more than £250,000 on Georgian and Regency furniture for the 18th-century house, which was previously the home of Sir John Gielgud. The Blairs were also able to pay cash for a £1.13 million mews house in London for their second son, Nicky, who is a teacher.
Exactly where the money comes from is something Mr Blair would rather we did not know. He was so sensitive about a deal with UI Energy Corporation, a South Korean oil firm, that he kept it secret for almost two years, persuading a parliamentary committee that vetted the work of former ministers that it was “commercially sensitive”.
What was perhaps even more sensitive for Mr Blair was that UI had extensive interests in Iraq, which opened up to foreign companies once British forces helped topple Saddam Hussein.
Mr Blair also earned a £4.6 million advance for his memoirs, The Journey, out later this year; an estimated £1 million from the Kuwaiti royal family for producing a report on the future of the oil-rich state; and £2.5 million for consultancies with JP Morgan and Zurich Financial Services.
There is also the small matter of the £63,468 pension he already receives, and his taxpayer-funded office allowance of £84,000 per year. He charges up to £200,000 for speeches. His next appointments are in Singapore and Malaysia, where it is not too late to pay £430 to hear “a fascinating account of where the world is heading”. But the key to Mr Blair’s wealth almost certainly lies in the opaque dealings of Tony Blair Associates, the company he established last year to carry out consultancy work for foreign governments. Deals with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are already rumoured to be on the cards; figures of £5 million per year have been guessed at.
Money earned by Tony Blair Associates is likely to be paid into one of six companies registered by Mr Blair, all of which have names beginning with either Windrush or Firerush. Two of them reported a combined income of £11.7 million for the last financial year, but details of where the money came from, and how much of it was paid to Mr Blair, were not revealed.
The other four companies are limited partnerships or limited liability partnerships, meaning they may not have to file accounts.
Intriguingly, Mr Blair’s praise of Mr Brown in Trimdon could produce a commercial benefit. On the day he made the speech, he launched a new electioneering website, tonyblair4labour, which encouraged visitors to sign up for a newsletter by giving their email and postcode. The small print of the website, set up by a Windrush company, tells users their details might be used “to recommend products and services that we believe will be of interest to you” and “to permit third party research organisations to question individuals registered with us in respect of surveys and/or consultations”.
Whether or not Windrush will be paid for passing on such details is not spelt out.
Ironically, those who worked closely with Mr Blair in Downing Street insisted that he was not, at the time, motivated by money.
“I never had the sense that he was particularly money-conscious when I worked with him, though he was always intrigued and fascinated by rich people and he has always liked to be surrounded by nice things,” said Lance Price, a former spin doctor who was Alastair Campbell’s deputy.
“Having said that, he has always wanted the best for his family and there was never any doubt that he had the capacity to go on and run Tony Blair as a business, which is effectively what he is doing.”
Before Mr Blair left office, the accepted wisdom was that the Blairs’ acquisition of an impressive property portfolio, including a £4.5 million London base in Connaught Square, was driven by Cherie.
As evidence of Mr Blair’s unstoppable accumulation of wealth mounts, it appears that the couple are finally on the same wavelength.