FORMER Labour prime minister Tony Blair was desperate to avoid claims he was “snuggling up” to Silvio Berlusconi while seeking to develop him as an “essential” ally within the EU, according to newly released official files.

Papers released to the National Archives show No 10 officials were highly nervous as to how a planned summit meeting with the controversial Italian prime minister would be portrayed in the British media.

At the same time, they believed an apparent shift in a more Eurosceptic direction by Berlusconi’s government offered a chance to counter French and German ambitions for a more integrated EU.

Britain’s ambassador to Rome, Sir John Shepherd, told No 10 there was a “real opportunity” to work together while “holding our noses and staying alert to the risks as we do so”.

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The Rome summit, in February 2002, came as Berlusconi – who died earlier this year – was in the headlines following controversial comments on the supposed “superiority” of Western civilisation.

At the same time, he was embroiled in fresh allegations of corruption, which dogged his political career while causing dismay in some EU capitals after sacking his pro-EU foreign minister while appointing a former fascist to a convention on the future of Europe.

In the Foreign Office, David Whineray said No 10 had unusually decided not to take the lobby journalists, who normally travel with the prime minister on overseas visits, as they sought to play down the meeting in the British media.

“We will want to avoid ‘Blair snuggles up to Berlusconi’ headlines,” he wrote, adding that they were seeking to frame it as an ‘Italy-UK (not Blair-Berlusconi) summit’.”

He said any media appearances by Europe minister Peter Hain, who was accompanying Blair, should be carefully targeted on programmes where the line of questioning was likely to be “soft”.

“I recommend against offering Mr Hain to the Today programme (as they are likely only to be interested in Berlusconi),” he advised.

In a briefing for No 10 ahead of the summit, Shepherd said Berlusconi was determined to hang on, having spent 50 billion lire in 2000 alone on legal fees before the Italian currency was replaced by the euro.

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“He will spend his last cent (even though he says he has yet to spend any euros!) on ensuring he preserves his Houdini-like ability to avoid conviction. This is a war he has to win,” he wrote.

“Even if he does come a cropper for whatever reason, we have at least in the short term a real opportunity to exploit and form his government’s orientations in Europe in support of UK interests, holding our noses and staying alert to the risks as we do so.”

Stephen Wall, Blair’s Europe adviser, agreed, noting: “It will be to our advantage to work with Berlusconi, but not to be seen doing so too obviously.

Blair concurred, adding in a handwritten note: “But he is essential in the alliance against federalism.”