The Government's most senior spin doctors yesterday organised a photocall to deny reports that Cherie Blair had ordered Humphrey, the Downing Street cat, put down because he had a kidney complaint.
"The Blairs like cats," said the Prime Minister's spokesman. "The suggestion that Cherie got rid of Humphrey is a vile slur."
Cherie Blair said the whole family was sorry that Humphrey's failing health meant he had to retire somewhere quieter, away from the hectic pace of life in Downing Street.
The reports that Humphrey's death warrant had been signed by Mrs Blair had been started by Alan Clark, the diarist and former Tory minister. Mr Clark, an animal lover, said the claims that the Prime Minister's wife had an allergy against cats was a cover-up for a dislike of his misdeeds on the floor of the Cabinet Office.
Downing Street insisted Humphrey was not extinct, deceased, and had not been put down. The Number Ten mouser may have used up most of his nine lives, but he was resting in retirement at his new home, somewhere in a "quiet suburban place".
The Independent's suggestion that this could be a cemetery was brushed aside by the Prime Minister's top spokesman. Humphrey was alive, and well, and they had the photographs to prove it.
Like a hostage held by a guerrilla group, Humphrey was photographed with a copy of yesterday's paper to prove it was a recent mug shot.
A Press Association photographer who was called to a secret location to take the portrait of Humphrey was said to have recognised the black and white moggie.
The plot surrounding Humphrey's departure from Number Ten deepened as Downing Street also disclosed that he could soon be replaced by another cat. "In due course there will be a Downing Street cat but the public should not either send cats or fax us about cats because the choice will be made by Number Ten," said the spokesman.
Under further questioning, it emerged that another mature cat was waiting in the wings, having already been picked by the Blairs for the vacancy, sparking rumours in Westminster that it must have been vetted by Peter Mandelson, the Minister without Portfolio.
The sudden exit from Downing Street may have left Humphrey feeling like Cabinet ministers after a reshuffle, discarded and on the scrap heap. But his owners say he is enjoying the peace and quiet away from it all.
They are asking for the press to abide by Humphrey's appeal for privacy, after the photocalls. There is a voluntary code of practice on press intrusion, and the use of a long lens to capture Humphrey in flagrante in the rose bed could lead to renewed calls for legislation.Reuse content