-- Where's Tony?
Prime Minister Tony Blair has left London and gone on vacation, that much the British public knows.
But just exactly where is Blair, one of the highest-profile public figures in the world, the leader of Britain's 60 million people, the steady hand behind this government's massive response to last month's deadly subway bombings?
"We usually don't talk about this -- I mean, it's his holiday," said a spokesman for the prime minister's office.
President Bush cannot leave Washington without a forwarding address, nor can he ditch the press corps and ask the American people to mind their own business for a couple of weeks, but Blair has managed something like that.
There are no reporters with Blair, who hasn't been heard from publicly since he gave a news conference Aug. 5 and left Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to mind the store.
Pressed for details of Blair's location, his spokesman offered that the prime minister left London, perhaps two weeks or so ago. "I can't remember the date," he said, insisting that his name not be used, as is customary here. "When he comes back, he will have a press conference and people can ask him where he's been."
Security is the stated reason for the tight lips this summer. Following the subway and bus bombings last month, Blair's office has requested that journalists not publish or broadcast his upcoming trips and certainly not where he is taking his family vacation.
Often in the past, even if the prime minister's office did not reveal where Blair was spending his time off, other vacationers would inevitably spot one of the world's most recognizable faces, and pretty soon everyone knew. But this year, even though he was spotted by a photographer and some newspapers published pictures of a bare-chested Blair on a yacht, many did not mention where the yacht and Blair were. Some mentioned that he was somewhere in the Caribbean Sea.
The Daily Mail just focused on his belly size, asking, "Hunk or Chunk?"
"Where is our prime minister?" Stephen Glover, a columnist for the Daily Mail, wrote in Tuesday's paper. "All that can be said is that he is out there somewhere."
Glover's column noted that many reporters know where Blair is but that "Downing Street has strongly requested that his whereabouts on holiday not be revealed for security reasons." Glover then went on to speculate: "Is he snorkeling off the coast of Iceland? Is he big-game hunting in Africa? Is he thrashing his way through the Amazonian jungle? . . . Alas, I am not allowed to say."
As a result the public is left guessing.
"He could be anywhere: maybe Australia, maybe the United States," said telephone repairman Steve More.
"I bet he is in the Caribbean," said engineer John Costello.
Some say the fact that the prime minister and his family can disappear from public view highlights how important family vacations, or "holidays," are here. "It's a cultural things about the British holidays being sacred," said Cathy Newman, chief political correspondent for the Financial Times. "We are always amazed in the U.S. you get by with two weeks' holiday when we need five weeks rest."
The secrecy is certainly a sign of angst over security, said Glover, the columnist, in an interview. "But it is also convenient for Blair," he said. "Every year when his holiday plans are disclosed there is a certain amount of fun had at his expense because he is not a very rich man but he has rich tastes." In the past, Blair has stayed at the villas and on the yachts of millionaires from the Caribbean to Italy to Egypt, and much has been made about how he always seems to have a "freebie" vacation that would cost common folk tens of thousands of dollars.
Brian Parkin, a motorcycle courier near Blair's 10 Downing Street office, said he thought it a bit odd not to know where Blair is. After all, he said, "he's in charge of running this country."
But More, the telephone technician said, his absence wasn't felt a bit: "This shows we don't really need him, doesn't it?" And, he said, it shows that everyone should be taking a few weeks off in August.