He’s not the Prime Minister: He’s a very naughty boy

“We do both business and philanthropy.”

Tony Blair

The idea of a quiet retirement is not something that one associates with Tony Blair. Since he stepped down from the prime ministerial office in 2007, he has played an increasingly controversial role in his position as Special Envoy to the Middle East, as well as attracting criticism and media attention from the founding of his independent consultancies. Dubbed ‘shameless’ by the Human Rights Watch for his involvement with the Kazakh regime earlier this year, yet somehow awarded ‘Philanthropist of the Year’ by GQ Magazine, it is no wonder that he has faced numerous calls to come before Parliament with an explanation. His most recent foreign endeavours have also re-opened the debate as to whether influential figures should be held accountable to the Nolan Principles of Public Life whilst acting outside of a public office.

Image courtesy of Polish President, © 2007 some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Polish President, © 2007 some rights reserved.

Over the past year, Blair has amassed a fortune from his consultancy company Tony Blair Associates (TBA), which, according to its website, offers “advice and support on key areas of governance, modernisation and implementation”[1] to clients, who, until recently, were assumed to be either multinational corporations or NGOs. Yet on 8th of March this year, a document leaked to the Sunday Times revealed the extent to which the former PM’s company holds dubious connections with some of the wealthiest regimes in the Middle East. In the 25-page dossier are outlines for TBA’s most recent venture – a contract with the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi, reportedly worth between £25-35 million, which proposes a 5-year “commercial partnership with [the] foreign ministry.”[2] This partnership, which has the rather ambiguous intention to ‘extend’ the foreign ministry, was agreed upon by Blair and Sheikh Abdullah Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s foreign minister, and at face value does not appear to hold any real political significance. The deal is between a state and an independent consultancy firm, yet has elicited severe criticism because of allegations that the company is employing Blair’s publically created contacts in order to amass personal gain. The scrutiny derives from Blair’s meetings with the foreign minister, which were held in Blair’s capacity as Special Envoy to the Middle East. Thus not only has he created these contacts under the guise of British governmental support, but he is blatantly exploiting his official connections and contacts in order to create a small fortune.

Naturally, the reaction to the knowledge that the former prime minster is using his governmental contacts to create a small fortune is one of outrage, yet this case appears to be just the tip of the contractual iceberg. Other notable clients of Tony Blair Associates include Saudi Arabia, which, despite having diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom (UK), has by no means a sterling reputation on the international stage. Numerous unresolved incidents of human rights abuses and possible financial links to the Islamic State (IS) make it a less reputable business partner, and criticism from Human Rights Watch (HRW) serves only to intensify governmental criticism. Yet Tony Blair Associates recently signed a contact with the Saudi Arabian oil giant PetroSaudi, resulting in a profit for the company of £41,000 per month and a 2% commission on any further deal brokered by TBA.[3] Furthermore, since this contract was signed, Blair’s company has brokered a deal between PetroSaudi and China, which has drawn more stark questions over Blair’s role as Special Envoy to the Middle East and his evident personal interests in the area.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that despite Blair’s close business relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and PetroSaudi, no efforts have been made by any of his philanthropic organisations to tackle the UAE’s human rights abuses, which have been condemned by the HRW. According to a spokesperson for HRW, the UAE “continue[s] to arbitrarily detain individuals it perceives as threats to national security.” The security forces of the UAE, they added, “continue to torture detainees in pre-trial detention,”[4] a record which, if left unaddressed by Blair, only demonstrates his “willingness to exploit his unrivalled network of contacts and even his philanthropic activities for commercial ends.”[5]

It is not simply in the brokering of deals between oil giants that TBA specialises. Azerbaijan is a client for whom Blair and his company were asked to offer “counsel on ‘reputational, political and societal challenges.”’[6] The Azeri regime, led by President Illham Aliyev, is yet another of Blair’s governmental connection, which has been scrutinised by many on the international stage since presidential elections awarded Aliyev 84.5% of the vote a day before the 2013 elections were due to take place.[7] Blair’s contact and advisory capacity for the Azeri regime has also prompted consternation amongst Italian politicians, which has no doubt had an adverse effect on relations between the current British and Italian governments. The topic of this condemnation is the construction of an oil pipeline between Azerbaijan and Italy, a deal which has been brokered by Tony Blair Associates despite the protests of over forty officials in Salento, Italy, as well as huge public outcry from the population of Puglia. The construction of the pipeline will begin later this year and has reaped huge profits for the company. In response to the criticism his consultancy has received, Blair, who has been described by Seamus Milne as the embodiment of “corruption and war,” issued a statement saying, “as with any country, there are from time to time issues or problems that arise and require fixing. These could be diplomatic or commercial challenges. We stand ready to offer our help in solving these issues.”[8]

In this advisory capacity, TBA has also signed a contract with the government of Kazakhstan for a mere £7 million after Blair offered to improve the nation’s standing with the Global Network for Rights and development. After the Kazakh regime’s reputation was marred in 2011, when 14 striking oil workers were killed and 64 other protesters were injured by police, Blair offered personal ‘leader to leader’ advice to President Nursultan Nazarbayev on how to deliver a speech at the University of Cambridge. Blair reportedly urged the president to “talk openly” about the incident and place it within a “favourable wider context about Kazakhstan,”[9] advice which seems harmless enough when given by an independent consultancy. The issue arises once one understands the way in which Blair is portraying his image to foreign governments and organisations: one of a former leader with connections, as opposed to an unbiased advisor.

Blair is thus the definition of a go-between; since leaving office he has become an associate and agent for governments which neither serve Britain’s national interest nor comply with his currently held governmental position. The clearest example of this is probably Blair’s advisory position to the Serbian government. This position, which is held independently of Blair’s governmental role, is currently being financed by the government of the UAE, which at first glance may seem odd, but of little concern. Yet once one realises that the UAE has been accused of using investments in Serbia’s arms trade to distribute weapons in the Middle East and act as a proxy for the United States and Israel, it soon becomes clear just how much influence Blair’s personal endeavours may hold over his position as Special Envoy to the Middle East, as well as the extent to which foreign governments are employing his skills to perhaps indirectly even counter British national interest.

It is not only with his political consultancies that the former Prime Minster has faced recent criticism. In September 2014 Blair’s philanthropic organisation the Faith Foundation, which works to conquer religious prejudice, conflict and global extremism, was hounded by press after a whistle-blower revealed the inner workings of the enterprise. Dubbed “a government in waiting” by Martin Bright, former journalist and representative of the Faith Foundation, actions of the Faith Foundation has prompted the establishment of a charity commission to investigate claims of foul play[10].

The use (or misuse) of contacts and contextual knowledge gained from Blair’s previous role as British Prime Minster has also been employed within the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), yet another philanthropic entity constructed and run by Blair which aims, in the words of the former PM himself “to make government work for some of the world’s poorest people.”[11] In the introductory note to the AGI’s website, we witness yet another example of Blair’s use of publically gained knowledge and contacts to furnish his private enterprise. Working with AGI at the political leadership level, Blair “draws on his ten years as Prime Minister to offer leaders the kind of advice on reform that only someone who has stood in a leader’s shoes can give.”[12] It would be pointless to delve into the wonderful irony of Blair being considered a good role model for leadership and reform on the international stage, as one only has to glance briefly at Blair’s failure to decide on EU membership or the state of the UK’s economy in 2007 or, of course, the British involvement in the Iraq War of 2003 to understand that perhaps he should not be trusted. This irony is not the problem. The problem with both the current business and philanthropic ventures of the former prime minster is the fact that Blair is blatantly using public connections, contacts and knowledge gained whilst in office to amass private gain without being held responsible.

On the AGI’s website for example, it explicitly points to “Tony Blair’s work with Presidents” as a key strategy for “making [African] governments work,”[13] demonstrating the flagrant exploitation of publically gained contacts to invest in private philanthropic work. The New York Times further highlighted Blair’s relationship with Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda, with whom Blair has met on several occasions. Kagame, who has been accused by his former ally Theogene Rudasingwa of being complicit in the shooting down of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane in 1994, which sparked the Rwandan genocide, has received a significant amount of counsel and aid from the AGI. David Himbara, a political aide to Kagame, described how Blair “was pitching himself as a former leader who knew how challenges of government, and […] was saying that he could help” in attaining for Rwanda a better state of governance.[14] In an ideal world, Blair should be acting independently of his former prime ministerial status, but this little nuance does not seem to have had any effect on his actions or the way in which he portrays his consultancy firms to the world.

It is this ‘cashing in on connections’ that has prompted outcry from both media and political figures alike and prompted MP Andrew Bridgen to call, in January, for former prime ministers to be held responsible to the Nolan Principles. These principles, which were officially set out after the Nolan Report into MPs extra-parliamentary activities in 1995,[15] are the moral principles by which it is stated that all public officials shall lead their lives. The report, which alluded to some 168 MPs who enjoyed paid consultancies with either firms or trade associations,[16] prompted seven principles of public life to be included in the ministerial code,[17] which consisted of: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It does not take a genius to work out that these principles, even if well-meant, are not easily measured nor enforced due to their inherent subjectivity, and application of such principles to the political profession could never be a straightforward task. Yet one thing is clear, they should be applied (however difficult in practice that may be) to holders of public office. Should they then apply to the independent consultancies run by Blair? Of course they should. In his capacity as special envoy to the Middle East and his duties as representative of the Quartet (the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the Russian Federation) in the Middle East, he is still subject to scrutiny as a public servant. But in his actions as an independent consultant, he is technically not liable nor can he be held accountable for the blatant disregard for these principles. He has faced continued calls to stand down both as Special Envoy to the Middle East and as Representative of the Quartet amidst claims he is “damaging Britain’s reputation” and “relentlessly cashing in on contacts,”[18] yet no concrete action has been taken against him.

It can only be assumed that the lack of preventative action can either be attributed to the former high status, and thus irreproachability, of Blair or to the fact that it is not an uncommon feat amongst British politicians to engage in ‘extra-parliamentary’ activity. While Blair’s various business ventures have allowed him to amass the biggest fortune of any British prime minister or politician, the concept of using parliamentary or government lines to contribute to personal gain is no new idea. In the Nolan Report, it was determined that, even in 1995, 26 serving MPs held ‘multi-client consultancies’ and a further 142 held paid consultancies with specific companies or trade associations.[19] Despite the recommendation by Nolan to enforce the seven principles of public life, their inherent subjectivity make them almost impossible to enforce, so it is no surprise that, twenty years later, Blair has managed to garner a fortune through his connections as former prime minister and the exploitation of political contacts.

Nevertheless, any logical conclusion to this debate should undoubtedly lead to the former British prime minister being held accountable for his dealings that have been wrongfully formed under the guise of British parliamentary concession and in the pursuit of personal wealth. As such, perhaps MP Andrew Bridgen has a point: responsibility for one’s actions should not stop the moment one leaves office, yet once one steps out of the political limelight, enforcing it becomes nigh on impossible.

[1] “Tony Blair Associates.” The Office of Tony Blair

[2] Ungoed-Thomas, Jon and Mark Hollingsworth. “Tony’s here to help—at a price.” The Sunday Times. 8 March 2015.

[3] Singh, Amit. “WTF Tony Blair?” openDemocracy. 22 November 2014.

[4] “World Report 2015: United Arab Emirates.” Human Rights Watch.

[5] Ungoed-Thomas, Jon and Mark Hollingsworth, op. cit.

[6] Croucher, Shane. “Tony Blair Associates: The Consultancy’s Murky Clients.” International Business Times. 10 November 2014.

[7] “Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev declared election winner day before voting takes place.” CBS News. 10 October 2013.

[8] Ungoed-Thomas, Jon and Mark Hollingsworth, op. cit.

[9] Singh, Amit, op. cit.

[10] Dearden, Lizzie. “Tony Blair Faith Foundation ‘assessed’ by charity watchdog after concerns raised about former PM’s influence.” The Independent. 7 September 2014.

[11] Africa Governance Initiative <http://www.africagovernance.org>

[12] “Our Approach.” Africa Governance Initiative.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hakim, Danny. “Tony Blair Has Used His Connections to Change the World, and to Get Rich.” New York Times. 5 August 2014.

[15] Berrington, Hugh. “Political Ethics: The Nolan Report.” Government and Opposition 30, no. 4 (1995): 431-451.

[16] Ibid., 438.

[17] “Ministerial Code.” Cabinet Office. 20 September 2010. <gov.uk>

[18] Bridgen, Andrew. Quoted in Ungoed-Thomas, Jon and Mark Hollingsworth, op. cit.

[19] Berrington, op. cit., 437-439.