This week marks another milestone in my 15-year battle with Richard Branson. Ever since he unsuccessfully sued me in 1999 to prevent the publication of my first damning biography, we have exchanged shots. His anointment on Sunday as Britain’s most admired businessman coincides with my appearances to promote Branson: Behind the Mask, my second book. Inevitably, the book sparked his fury, summarised in a 29-page letter of complaint. Our war is now focused on whether Virgin Galactic, his Heath Robinson rocket, will ever carry him 62 miles into the border of space. For ten years his regular predictions of imminent take-off have proven wrong. Last Christmas he announced he would fly this month with his son and daughter. I derided his forecast. Now he says take-off will be next March. I say pigs will fly first.
The antagonism has denied me an invitation extended to Branson’s media fans of a trip to Necker, his Caribbean tax haven. This home can be rented for £40,000 a night — once again arousing my doubts that he is worth £3 billion, another source of friction between us.
But not everyone I write about hates me. Last Sunday I was among 70 of Simon Cowell’s friends at Scalini’s in Chelsea to celebrate the music mogul’s 55th birthday. Although my biography of Cowell contained enough embarrassing material to fill the Sun’s front page for a record six successive days, we have become friends. The invited celebrities, including Cheryl Cole and David Walliams, naturally adore their employer. Guest speaker was Philip Green, the retail billionaire and the godfather of Cowell’s son, who joked about Cowell’s working hours: ‘He doesn’t know that there are two 11 o’clocks in the day. He complains when I fall asleep while he’s talking on the phone at 4 a.m.’
I first met Green four years ago in Monaco. He had Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez in tow. I was having lunch with Bernie Ecclestone in his bus, aka ‘The Kremlin’, one hour before the start of a Formula 1 race. Ecclestone is the only other of my ‘victims’ with whom I have forged a good relationship. After hearing I was writing an unauthorised biography about him, Ecclestone offered his co-operation. ‘I’m writing this book because I’m told you’re a crook,’ I told him over lunch. ‘If that’s true, it’ll go in the book. You won’t read it until it’s published.’ ‘No problem,’ replied Bernie. ‘As you go through my life you’ll see I’m no angel.’ That was certainly true. However, his recent trouble in Munich — accusations of bribery and corruption — was undeserved. I was happy to give the German judge, who was intent on a conviction, the evidence which helped to unravel the prosecution’s case. Afterwards, Bernie’s thanks was characteristic. ‘Most people say you’re a shit,’ he told me, ‘but I tell them you’re OK.’ Last week he invited me to fly with him to Sochi to watch the first Russian F1 race. Unfortunately, I had to decline the chance to meet Bernie’s new best friend, President Putin. Bernie was not insulted when I quipped that he has a lot in common with Putin. Chuffed more like it.
My weekends in Wiltshire this summer have been blissful. As I enjoyed the last swim of the year on Sunday, I was replaying the conversations of recent dinner parties. Even in the deepest blue household, I remain the only defender of David Cameron. The distrust was rarely neutralised by my opinion that at least Cameron has integrity. Being a voice in the wilderness is normal, but to be the only man who likes Cameron and Cowell and dislikes Branson places me on the Siberian periphery.
Inevitably, I’ll be an outsider at the Tory party conference. Ever since I started my journalistic career in 1969, travelling for one week on a train with Willy Brandt during the German election campaign, I have loved watching politicians seducing the crowds. Spending the evenings with Brandt taught me that politicians should be judged by their cronies. Cameron’s court in Downing Street attracts nearly as much criticism as Harold Wilson’s but at least there is no hint of dishonesty. Yet!
An unmentioned influence over the show in Birmingham will be Tony Blair. Despite the opprobrium, Cameron and George Osborne remain students of Blair’s electoral success. As it happens, the former prime minister is the subject of my next book. No invitation has yet arrived to board the Blair jet but perhaps Ecclestone will put a word in. Bernie’s cash once bought Blair’s attention. On the other hand, Blair is a visitor to Necker. No chance of a telephone call then.
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Tom Bower is an investigative journalist who has written biographies of Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, Simon Cowell and Richard Branson.
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