Review: The lucrative and controversial Blair Inc

March 20, 2015

REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Politics has a problem in the era of the global billionaire. The challenge is illustrated by the business empire of Tony Blair – dubbed “Blair Inc” – in a timely new book by veteran reporters Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan.

Blair has kept busy since stepping down as UK prime minister in 2007. He apparently charges $200,000 a speech, advises JPMorgan, and saved Glencore’s takeover of Xstrata. His mini-McKinsey, Tony Blair Associates, has worked for Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan and Kuwait. And like a true Davos delegate, Blair leavens entrepreneurship with non-profit work, including his Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Africa Governance Initiative.

He has also dabbled in diplomacy as Middle East peace envoy for the “quartet” of the United Nations, Brussels, Washington and Moscow. He was supposed to help strengthen the Palestinian economy, but critics charge he’s aloof, too close to Israel and tarnished by his government’s participation in the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. The Financial Times reported recently he has recognised this role is untenable, and is preparing to step back.

Many in Britain have serious problems with Blair’s whole portfolio career. “Blair Inc” lays out the charges. He wears “too many hats,” the authors say, so it’s not always clear whether he’s doing good or winning business. A personal fortune they estimate at 60 million pounds, plus a 36-property family portfolio, is unseemly, as it was largely built thanks to the contacts and gravitas acquired in public service.

The authors find his consultancy for illiberal regimes distasteful, although it’s not clear if they think he’s being naïve or cynical. Intense secrecy – opaque corporate structures, secret donors, keeping the press at bay – is a final insult. UK partnership rules and the fact he is no longer in parliament limit his disclosure requirements.

Much of this rings true. But “Blair Inc” is hardly the final word. The setup cries out for careful forensic analysis. This book offers much less. It is hyperbolic, vindictive and marred by errors, inconsistencies and poor editing.

A few examples: the book contradicts itself on fees paid by JPMorgan and Kazakhstan, and on who hired former chief of staff Jonathan Powell. A telling quotation from donor Haim Saban appears four times. More broadly, direct sources are limited and some lack authority. Verbiage, from LinkedIn profiles to property ads, jumps unquestioned from internet to page.

The authors get worked up about tiny things, but have little interest in the actual consultancy work, or in exploring the idea that engaging troublesome characters, as Blair did in Northern Ireland, could ever be worthwhile. (They do, however, concede that Blair’s team has done valuable work on malaria and Ebola). Nor is there much context: the obvious comparisons, to Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gerhard Schroeder, go begging.

For all that, though, this is a vital topic, and Blair has not made this an easy story to tell. But while the former UK leader’s breadth of ambition and divisive reputation makes him a special case, the wider problem is obvious and serious: the extraordinary rewards for the global elite.

You’d need three millennia on a British PM’s salary to match the $690 million that Blackstone boss Steve Schwarzman received last year. Any ex-politician without a fortune of his or her own will feel impoverished in the familiar halls of Davos. Typically, elected leaders leave office with small nest eggs, by those standards, and a few decades left to earn serious money.

Since the opportunity and the desire are often there, there will almost certainly be more Politicians Incorporated. That’s worrying. Democracy will suffer if public office becomes little more than an audition for a second truly lucrative career.

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A useful review, thanks, Quentin. I won’t bother buying the book. Your criticism hits the very thing I personally dislike — a political commentary posing as analysis. What is needed is an analysis of the business deals Blair has forged – we can make our own conclusions from that. But that would perhaps be too much hard work.

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