Sat, Dec 30, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Blair paid for his Florida trip, Downing Street says

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office at No. 10 Downing Street, London, insisted on Thursday that it had paid properly and in full for Blair's winter break after a day of confusion over the arrangements surrounding his stay in the Miami mansion of pop star Robin Gibb.

No. 10 maintained that the Blairs' holiday at the waterfront home was a "private commercial arrangement," even though the wife of the prime minister's host seemed to contradict the claim.

Dwina Murphy-Gibb said she and her husband, a former member of the Bee Gees had not accepted or received money from the Blairs to stay in their Florida mansion.

"It's just a friendly thing," she said.

Though Downing Street refused to elaborate, government sources moved to explain the different views after overnight talks with John Campbell, who represents Robin Gibb. One official said Campbell confirmed that the Blairs paid the Gibbs for the accommodation, but that the couple had donated the money to charity.

But Downing Street refused to clarify how much Blair had paid for the house, to whom or when. No 10 argues that Blair is entitled to privacy when he is on holiday.

The confusion has again raised question marks over the press handling of Blair's holiday arrangements. Questions have dogged him several times, ever since he borrowed the former UK paymaster-general Geoffrey Robinson's villa in the summer of 1997. Later that year Blair surprised even his aides by taking the family to the Seychelles for a winter break.

Senior British opposition politicians held fire on the issue yesterday. Hazel Blears, the Labour party chairwoman, appealed to the media to stop prying.

"I'm not privy to his private arrangements for his holiday. We are talking about big issues around pensions, energy, the health service, education and yet right across the media it's tittle-tattle about where he's gone for his holidays," she told BBC Radio.

"All members of the government are always conscious of the need to have integrity, public probity: all those issues are important. For people to be crawling over the details of the prime minister's Christmas and New Year break, I just think is entirely wrong," she said.

Nevertheless, backbench opposition members of parliament tried to keep up the pressure on Blair.

"This is yet another freebie holiday and I fear it cheapens the whole office," Henry Bellingham said.

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