The banquet was readied, the ChÃ¢teau Lafite was at room temperature and the 700 guests were in their chairs and eager to listen to a veteran of the world stage deliver a speech entitled From Great to Outstanding.
No one could accuse Tony Blair of selling himself short when he arrived by private jet at Dongguan, near Hong Kong, on Tuesday for the latest leg on his debut tour of the lecture circuit.
He had been invited by the Guangda Group, the biggest property developer in the boom town in southern China, to visit its luxury housing estate and speak at a VIP banquet.
Three hours later, as Mr Blair left with his post-tax takings of an estimated £156,000, Dongguan reflected on whether it had, indeed, been witness to whatever lies beyond greatness.
For Deng Qingbo, a commentator in the China Youth Daily, the answer was a resounding “no”. “To be honest, Mr Blair’s speech sounds so familiar. It’s just like the report of any Chinese county level official and contains no novelty. If the local political and business circles paid such a high price for a speech they could have made themselves, was it worth it?”
The former Prime Minister’s oratory on the importance of enhancing mutual understanding, boosting co-operation and of ensuring that environmental awareness accompanied economic growth offered little more than platitudes, Mr Deng complained. “In the future, more foreign celebrities will come to give speeches in China and we should be less ostentatious and vain and more modest and realistic. We should ask for more fresh knowledge and real knowledge – especially when we are touching even a few cents of taxpayers’ money.”
Not all the coverage was negative. The Guangzhou Daily recorded that female guests, won over by Mr Blair’s smile and his “English gentleman” look, cooed: “He’s so cute.” His hosts were evidently pleased enough to offer Mr Blair one of their villas. It is not known whether he accepted the show home, “equipped with five en suite bedrooms, two additional guest bathrooms, gold taps, marble floors and a spectacular garden”.
For his part, Mr Blair expressed delight to be in Dongguan. He spoke of “the soft spot in my heart for China”, revealed that his son Leo was studying Mandarin and mused that, in another 40 years, he might return able to say more than a mere “Ni hao” — or “Hello” to his Chinese audience. His remark that “the sky’s the limit” for Dongguan drew resounding applause, according to the newspaper.
And then it was time to go. There was no opportunity for Mr Blair to sample any of the nine bottles of ChÃ¢teau Lafite, costing as much as £600 each, that Guangda had provided for his dinner, the Guangzhou Daily lamented.
There was, however, just time to file his return to the Chinese tax office. The office confirmed that the amount he paid in income tax was £80,000.
The spokesman for Mr Blair said that the tour of China had been undertaken in his capacity as a private individual and had been arranged through the Washington Speakers Bureau, the agency that organises his commercial appearances. He refused to confirm any further details of the trip or respond to the accusations that Mr Blair had not provided value for money on his tour.
Asked how much the former Prime Minister had earned during the trip, Matthew Doyle said: “It’s none of your business.” He later added: “Mr Blair receives a large number of invitations to speak to a whole range of organisations. His speech was very well received by the audience in the hall.”
Mr Blair signed a book-publishing contract worth about £5 million and made his debut on the lecture circuit in the United States last month. Billed by his agency as having “transformed Britain’s public services” the first paid engagement of Mr Blair was at an event in Washington organised by Goldman Sachs. Mr Blair is said to have earned about £300,000 for the tour, which included appearances in California, Arizona and Calgary in Canada.
– Tony Blair could be received formally into the Roman Catholic Church in time to celebrate Mass at Westminster Catholic Cathedral at Christmas.
According to a report today in The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper, Mr Blair is to be received into the Church in the next few weeks.
Mr Blair is expected to be received by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in his private chapel of Archbishop’s House. There has been repeated speculation for a decade that Mr Blair, whose wife Cherie is a practising Catholic, was to convert. The Times reported this year that Mr Blair would convert after he left Downing Street.
Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, said: “The cardinal’s involvement, as if he were Mr Blair’s parish priest, would suggest that the process of conversion did in fact begin during his tenure of No 10.”
She said that Mr Blair, whose four children were all baptised Catholics, could have been received earlier, but was discouraged by his advisers. Alastair Campbell famously said: “We don’t do God.”
A spokesman for the Cardinal said: “It is inappropriate for the Cardinal to comment on an individual’s faith journey. It is a private and personal issue.”
£102,000 for Cherie Blair for 2005 Australasian lecture tour
£60,000 per after-dinner engagement by Mrs Thatcher
£25,000 paid to Prince Edward for 75-minute talk on the Royal Family in Florida in 2005
$2million raked in by Ronald Reagan in Japan, after leaving office
$40 million earned by Bill Clinton through public speaking engagements
Sources: Washington Post, Agencies