On a snowy morning, Tony Blair, looking trim, is sipping coffee in his office in London’s Mayfair district.
He’s sitting in a Georgian town house that was in the late 18th century the site of the first US embassy to the Court of St James’s. Now, almost six years after he resigned as British prime minister, it serves as the epicentre of a new Blair empire.
Blair, 59, has reinvented himself as a dealmaker, globe-trotting adviser and philanthropist. He presides over a network of companies and charities that operate in more than 20 countries, with financing from a tangle of private, corporate and government sources.
Since 2007, Blair and his firms have taken in at least £59 million (R823m). His charities have raised £25.5m. Last year, one of his eight companies, Windrush Ventures, booked a record £16m in revenue, up from £12m the previous year. JPMorgan Chase has paid him at least £10m since January 2008.
In his new incarnation, Blair is taking on highly paid roles that don’t sit well with Britons still agitated by what they saw as his foreign adventurism when he was in office.
He’s a paid adviser to the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority, which is chaired by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He’s helping to arrange deals with China Investment, a $482 billion (R4.4 trillion) sovereign wealth fund.
Blair also is advising President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, whose administration has paid Blair’s team of advisers £8m a year since the spring of 2011.
Mihra Rittmann, Kazakhstan researcher for Human Rights Watch, says Blair has failed to call publicly on Kazakhstan to tackle violations that have occurred since his work began there. “There is a real risk that he could be seen as legitimising the actions of the increasingly authoritarian Kazakh government,” Rittmann says.
It’s important to look at the bigger picture, Blair says.
“I don’t dismiss the human rights stuff at all,” he says. “These are points we make. There’s a whole new generation of administrators there who are reformers, and we’re working with them.”
In 2012, Blair signed an agreement with Geraldo Alckmin, the governor of the Brazilian state of São Paulo, to assemble a team of advisers to help modernise the state’s public services.
As of mid-March, Blair was close to renewing a contract to advise the Kuwaiti government for an undisclosed amount of money and was in discussions on similar deals in Asia and Latin America, people familiar with the negotiations say.
Blair’s high-level connections, as well as the negotiating skills he honed as prime minister, are in demand in an area where he had no prior experience: finance.
In September, he helped seal the pact that led to the biggest merger deal of 2012, mining giant Glencore International’s $35bn takeover of Xstrata. People familiar with the matter say his fee was at least $1m.
Blair had no desire to exit the world stage, says Anthony Seldon, the author of Blair Unbound.
“He felt this burning sense of an incomplete agenda,” Seldon says.
Good for Blair, says Meghnad Desai, a Labour member of the House of Lords and professor emeritus of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“I’d rather have my ex-PM doing useful things than sitting around and pontificating when he’s not needed,” he says.
“All power to his empire.”
Some segments of the British public have raged at Blair’s pursuit of profit as a dealmaker, especially at a time when banker-bashing is rife.
“I see a man who appears to be amassing a lot of money and shadow-boxing with politics,” says Peter Kilfoyle, a retired Labour Party MP and government minister who fell out with Blair over the war in Iraq. “I think he’s lost the plot completely. He seems to be on an ego trip.”
Blair’s new life is a far cry from his final years in office. Beginning in 1997, he led the Labour Party to victory in three general elections, becoming the longest-serving prime minister in his party’s 113-year history. Eventually, surging anger over his decision to join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq ate away at his effectiveness.
So did interference from Labour factions allied with Blair’s political nemesis and eventual successor, Gordon Brown. Blair announced his resignation on May 10, 2007. Within seven weeks, he was gone from 10 Downing Street and from the seat he had held in the House of Commons since 1983.
Over the course of two interviews, Blair says he has always had big plans for life after politics. “From the outset, I had a very clear view of what I wanted to do. I wanted to create my own set of institutions.”
He’s done that. The Office of Tony Blair manages his work advising governments. Tony Blair Associates runs his financial consulting business. His charities include the Africa Governance Initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Tony Blair Sports Foundation.
In total, he employs more than 180 people. He travels twice a month to Jerusalem for his unpaid role as a special envoy charged with fostering economic development in Palestine on behalf of the so-called Quartet of the EU, Russia, the UN and the US.
The Mayfair headquarters of his many undertakings has the feel of a Blair government in exile, complete with a press operation and security team. As relatively undisturbed as Blair’s new life is within these walls, enduring outrage over Iraq ensures that any publicised foray by him on to the streets of London will draw an angry crowd brandishing vials of fake blood and photos of war dead.
He moves about largely by stealth in his own country. In November, about 100 demonstrators gathered with placards emblazoned “BLIAR” outside University College London, where he had been expected to speak. Blair wasn’t there. The event took place at an undisclosed location. Organisers said it hadn’t been moved because of the protesters.
Blair says his business activities help bankroll his charities. “I am increasingly meeting the core costs of the foundations myself through the money that I make.”
He says he’s given almost £5m to his charities since 2008.
“It genuinely is about making a difference in the world and not about making money,” Blair says of his work. “The motivation is not the accumulation of personal wealth. If I’d wanted to do that, I could do it a lot simpler with a lot less time.”
As an elected official, Blair led a life subject to public scrutiny. As citizen Blair, he’s free to be more opaque. Short of full disclosure on Blair’s part, which he’s not willing to provide, it’s impossible to determine how much money Blair has personally made since leaving office.
Funds move from one company to another for reasons not discernible to an outsider. As of April 30, 2012, for example, Firerush Ventures had borrowed £822 000 under a convertible loan agreement with Windrush Ventures in the same year that it received £1.6m for “management services” from Firerush Ventures No 2 and ended the year with £1.2m in the bank.
“There’s no reason to make your life that complicated unless it’s to reduce tax or hide something,” says Adrian Huston, a former UK tax inspector and director of Belfast-based accounting firm Huston & Company. “The only reason you do all these intervening transactions is to create a smokescreen.”
Blair shrugs off with a laugh any suggestion that he is trying to dodge taxes. “Anything I get, I pay full 50 percent tax on,” he says.
Unlike many rich Britons who make money overseas and devise tax avoidance strategies by spending time outside the country, Blair says he has always been resident in the UK for tax purposes.
The rationale for his Byzantine-looking business configuration is simple. “We wanted confidentiality. There’s a section of the media that will go after anyone connected with me, and I can’t operate like that.”
Emphasising that his life is not all business, Blair says he spends twice as much time on his charities and his Quartet role as he does on his money-making ventures. What’s more, he says, paid advisory work of the sort he’s doing in Kazakhstan allows him to do similar work elsewhere.
“What I do pro bono in Africa, I do for a profit outside,” he says.
As part of his Africa Governance Initiative, he travels to Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and South Sudan. In January, Blair met Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma to discuss how his team there could help the country build up its tourism.
Six years out of office, Blair speaks with sometimes boyish passion about his new life.
“I love the intersection between the emerging market world today and people in the West who have developed ideas and technology and how you put those two together.”
When Blair announced he was leaving office in 2007, he said: “Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down.”
He never really did set it down. He’s just exercising it in different ways. – Stephanie Baker from Bloomberg