More than once, I had a mobile phone suddenly tossed my way as Tony Blair realised the car was about to arrive.
Usually it was obvious when the journey was coming to an end and he could sign off in traditional polite fashion. But sometimes, we would just arrive, the car would stop suddenly, and a door would open to reveal a red carpet and an outstretched hand. Then TB would say ‘gotta go’, the mobile would come flying my way and I would have to explain to whichever President, Prime Minister, Cabinet member, Downing Street staffer or family member he was speaking to.
I thought of those moments as I watched Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, fresh from his apparent annoying of the Queen with his overloud greetings to Barack Obama at the Buck House G20 photocall, get out of his car at the Nato Summit, and shoo away Chancellor Merkel of Germany who was waiting to greet him.
Highly intelligent people devote large amounts of diplomatic and logistical energy working out arrivals at summits. Having been chairman of a few in his time, Berlusconi knows that as well as anyone.
He must also have known how important to the summit was the moment when Merkel led other leaders across a footbridge on the Rhine to meet President Sarkozy, a neat way of marking the 60th anniversary of Nato. And what was Silvio doing as this symbolic moment unfolded? Wandering around daffodils still chatting on his mobile phone.
The Italians are well used to Berlusconi drawing attention to himself in ways not always planned or welcome, and have a habit of shrugging their shoulders and saying life’s too short to complain. But surely this was going to require a good explanation.
As it happens, if we can take it at face value, he did have a good explanation. According to the Italians, he was trying to persuade the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, to shift from his stated position of vetoing the appointment of Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen as Nato General-Secretary because of the Dane’s handling (or lack of it according to the Turks) of the row over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
If this had been Gordon Brown (unlikely I know, I think he would have tossed the phone as TB used to) there would now be a clamour to prove via phone bills that at that very moment, the two men were talking. Lip-readers would be hired in the hope of establishing that far from saying ‘… but Tayyip, stick to this and your entry to the EU hasn’t a chance,’ he was actually saying ‘… and they all lived happily ever after’ as he read a bedtime story down the phone to his sons.
Berlusconi somehow gets away with it and, to be fair, it that was indeed the call that swung Erdogan (I noticed the Americans making similar claims for President Obama) it was more important than keeping Merkel waiting and annoying the protocol department of the German foreign ministry.
It must help of course to own so much of the Italian media. There seemed to be not even a hint of irony when he told them after the slap on the wrist from the Queen, and the subsequent furore at home, that he would no longer talk to the Italian media. ‘I’m working for Italy while you’re working against it,’ he said.
He couldn’t shut down his own TV stations. Could he?