Tony Blair is supposed to be enjoying the high life after leaving office but friends say he is miserable
On the face of it, retirement seems to agree with Tony Blair.
He is leaner and fitter than when he left Downing Street nearly five months ago. Gone is the vaguely haunted look that characterised his final, troubled days in office.
Now that he is free to pursue the millions on offer to him after life in No 10, the former Prime Minister already bears the unmistakable buffed glow of a money-maker.
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He has even found time for the occasional game of tennis, although not yet the lie-ins he promised himself once he was no longer running the country.
A steady stream of early-morning builders and decorators to his still-unfinished London home has put paid to that.
Not that he has any time to be idle. When not criss-crossing the Atlantic or travelling to China in recent weeks to deliver a series of highly lucrative speeches, he has been hard at work sketching the outline of his forthcoming autobiography which will net him £6 million.
Indeed, Mr Blair has quickly honed his taste for the high living to which he has always been drawn.
Friends say he has, of late, been extolling the virtues of the private Gulfstream jets that are now his preferred mode of travel – those wishing to book him on the international lecture circuit are routinely told that providing Mr Blair with his own airliner is a non-negotiable requirement.
Nor, it seems, is the Blairs’ £3.65 million home near Hyde Park proving a sufficiently comfortable base for him as he commits pen to paper with those musings about ten years in power.
Instead, he is said to have spent recent weeks holed up in the lavish £20 million Mayfair home of his friend, PR guru Matthew Freud, as he waits for the completion of his own luxurious offices nearby.
All of which is very grand. So why, given that earlier this month he commanded an astonishing £240,000 just to pay a three-hour visit to a Chinese housing development, do those closest to him say Tony Blair is “utterly miserable”?
In fact, so out-of-sorts is the former premier as he struggles to come to terms with life outside the corridors of power that one recent visitor to Tony and Cherie’s new home told me: “There is an all-pervading joylessness about the place. Tony is very low.
“Neither of them is happy. The initial sense of relief both of them felt when they left Downing Street has gone and they are having trouble adjusting. I always felt that once the money started rolling in, Cherie, in particular, would perk up, but even she is miserable.
“As soon as you walk through the front door there is a bad vibe. The house feels soulless and there is tension in the air.”
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Part of the problem, say friends, is that Cherie is using much of the downstairs of the house in Connaught Square as an office and every morning their home is invaded by her staff, who now include a chauffeur.
The friend added: “Her staff are milling about constantly. It feels more like a business than a home.”
The mood has not been helped, insiders say, by a war of attrition being waged by the two teams the Blairs have hired to oversee their separate offices.
At the centre of the acrimony is Martha Greene, the New York-born former restaurant owner who acts as Cherie’s manager. The energetic Miss Greene is said to be so at odds with members of Mr Blair’s office that Tony has chosen to escape to Matthew Freud’s during the day simply to keep the peace.
One source said: “Martha is bossy beyond belief. The aggravation is affecting everyone. Tony needs to get out of the house for some peace and to work.”
All this comes at a time when Blair remains, say friends, in a “period of mourning” over his lost power.
And while the fortune he is now earning has undoubtedly softened the blow – during his first lecture tour of North America last month he earned more in a week than the £183,000 he earned in a year as PM – he cannot come to terms with his new role as a “civilian”.
This is perhaps unsurprising given that Blair’s status has been reduced from that of world statesman to little more than a celebrity for hire.
Consider his highly-paid trip to the Far East last week, which was partially funded by Chen Runguang, a property tycoon worth more than £100 million.
After paying £80,000 in local income tax, Mr Blair still trousered £156,000 for addressing a group of businessmen and touring Mr Runguang’s development of luxury villas in the industrial city of Dongguan.
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This week, Mr Blair’s image was being used to promote the development, with pictures of his visit displayed on a hoarding outside the sales office, while a slide show of his tour of the properties plays inside.
For all the financial consolations, it must surely be something of a come-down from those cosy Camp David summits with George Bush.
And then there is the fact that he was accused by the Chinese media of “gold digging” and “money sucking” and – horrors! – of boring his audience with another speech during the visit.
Certainly, he has fared better in America, where he remains popular.
Last month, he gave a series of speeches in the U.S. and Canada as friends revealed that Cherie had “put the arm on him” to earn more money.
He didn’t do badly – bringing home around £300,000 in just one week of four paid talks and a series of appearances for charity. But after being the guest of honour at a £500-a-head white tie charity dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York (fellow guests included Rupert Murdoch and mayor Michael Bloomberg), he was accused of telling the same jokes at a paid-for speech to oilmen in Calgary days later.
And when the Jewish Federation in Tampa, Florida, approached his agents, the Washington Speakers’ Bureau, to book him for its annual President’s dinner next March, it baulked at their insistence that Blair would charge £125,000 for a one-hour talk, plus, of course, the prerequisite private jet to transport him from the UK.
The trouble is that the money is desperately needed. The Blairs have £5 million of mortgages on their several properties including their London home, two flats in Bristol and his former constituency home in County Durham.
The couple were also linked last month with a £3 million estate close to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s weekend home in Buckinghamshire. They are said to have made three trips to view the Christopher Wren-designed Winslow Hall, set in 22 acres.
Friends say the Blairs initially set their hearts on the property which, despite needing at least £1 million of renovations, has its own Catholic chapel (Mr Blair is said to be preparing to convert to Catholicism, possibly later this month). But recently, the couple have “gone quiet” on the subject.
Meanwhile, their new earning power (Cherie has also signed her own £1.5 million deal to write her memoirs) does not seem to be reflected in the decor of their new London home, say visitors. One recent guest described the interior of the Georgian Connaught Square house as “unutterably naff”.
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The friend told me: “Considering all the renovations they are still having done, the place is a taste-free zone.
“Cherie simply has no clue about style and decoration. The house in Islington that they had before they moved into Downing Street was a shambles, and this place is the same.
“They are having an expensive marble floor put in, but, true to form, Cherie has been telling their architect, a man called Simon, to get her discounts on everything.
“One of their few extravagances has been an enormous plasma television which dominates one wall downstairs.
“The house is lovely outside and you’d think it would be equally elegant inside, but they have brought all their old, nasty furniture down from the constituency house in Trimdon and it just doesn’t fit in.
“I felt a flush of horror come over me when Cherie showed me into the living room and there was this huge and tacky TV next to a flower-patterned sofa of the most questionable taste.
“You’d think given the money they’re earning that they could have splashed out on some decent new stuff.”
Mrs Blair has nevertheless insisted on living a life commensurate with her position as the former unofficial First Lady and has assembled her own staff, having taken with her from Downing Street two full-time female assistants. She has also headhunted her former No 10 cleaner to work for them at their new home.
And as befits her taste for the regal, she has seen fit to employ her own full-time chauffeur (friends had become used to her complaining that she was expected to drive herself around when her husband was Prime Minister).
While she continues to tout herself for speaking engagements, insiders say the lure of her husband on the lecture circuit has led to a dropping off in her own bookings.
Where once it was her controversial speaking engagements that kept the family afloat, it is now Tony who is the major breadwinner – which leaves barrister Cherie clear to stake her long-held ambition to be chosen as a High Court judge.
Her well-orchestrated bid for the job, which began in an interview she gave to Lawyer magazine this week, has received something of a blow, however.
In accompanying comments, her former mentor, Michael Beloff QC, describes his one-time protege as a “reasonable” advocate.
Meanwhile, friends confirm that Mr Blair, who was appointed a Middle East envoy after leaving his job in June, is attempting to rekindle his political career by lobbying for the role of first full-time president of the EU.
He has already enlisted the support of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with whom he dined in Paris at the end of last month.
It is a position he would relish, not least because it would allow him to do battle once more with Gordon Brown. On the subject of the former Chancellor, friends say it was Cherie who was the prime mover in persuading her husband to appear in the controversial three-part BBC1 documentary, The Blair Years, which begins tomorrow night.
It features friends of Blair, including Peter Mandelson, former BBC boss John Birt and former Health Secretary Alan Milburn, who were sanctioned to speak about his former Chancellor Gordon Brown’s alleged treachery.
The programme is seen by friends of the Blairs as the first salvo in a ‘get even’ assault on his successor.
In particular, Cherie – whose memoirs will come out to coincide with next year’s Labour Conference (and a year before her husband’s tome) – is said by insiders to be “beside herself” at the thought of getting her revenge on Mr Brown in its pages.
Given their multifarious missions – the determination to make money, the desperation to reclaim their former power-broker status and that overwhelming desire for revenge – the Blairs have left themselves little time to readjust.
As a friend said: “They are both incredibly busy and I think they should have given themselves time to be a normal couple again after all the madness of the years in No 10.
“I always felt Tony was reluctant to dive straight into making money, but Cherie was having none of it. She felt it was his turn to start making some cash for them.
“But it’s not making him happy and I think it has been a mistake to turn the house into her office. The place feels tense and miserable.”