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Catering for the heat of the kitchen: Clare Latimer has a sparky attitude to Westminster's gossip machine, says Kathy Marks

WHEN Peter Walker became Minister of Agriculture in 1979, he discovered that there were no catering arrangements available if he wished to entertain people for lunch at the department.

He already knew and liked Clare Latimer, who had cooked for his family, so he invited her to Westminster. Political guests admired her culinary talents and her reputation spread.

It was this entree to the kitchens of power that led to Miss Latimer's popularity at the Commons and, indirectly, to the libel writs issued by her and John Major last week against two magazines which linked their private lives.

Miss Latimer, 41, daughter of the actor Hugh Latimer, says she learnt her culinary skills from her mother. She started her catering business, Clare's Kitchen, in a converted terraced house in Primrose Hill, north London, in 1984 after working from home for a few years.

Born in Hampstead, she spent much of her childhood in Cornwall. It was at the Helston Yacht Club that she first began catering. She lived in Italy, working for four years with the Italian Grand Prix motor racing team, and later edited the cookery page for the weekly magazine Woman's World for a year.

She lives alone in a large garden flat near her shop. She told the Sunday Times last month that despite a busy social life her career took priority. 'I'm never quite sure if that's why I've never been married,' she said. 'I'm not really someone to be tied down. Being a single woman frequently working for men does invite speculation, but that's just tedious.'

Miss Latimer's assignments range from Cabinet lunches and ministerial receptions to parties for 200 people. She also caters for acting contacts of her father and business dinners, charging pounds 4.50 to pounds 8 a head. Typical dishes include chicken satay, toad in the hole, prunes and bacon and filo parcels with crab and leek.

She employs a team of cooks at her shop, which also sells sandwiches and hot food. She told the Sunday Times: 'I concentrate on political catering because that's what interests me most . . . About eight or nine top politicians chose to have me cook for them.'

Friends say she has coped remarkably well with gossip for two years and the consequent harassment by journalists. 'Obviously it has been annoying and draining, but she has a great sense of humour and seems to find the allegations so ridiculous that she treats the whole thing as a bit of a laugh,' one said last week.

She raised eyebrows at a media party shortly before Christmas. 'I thought it was very sparky of her to walk straight into the lion's den, but she was completely vivacious and relaxed,' one journalist who attended the party said.

She first met John Major when he was a junior whip in the early 1980s. A journalist who visited her home some time ago noted a photograph on the sideboard of her pouring champagne for the Prime Minister and said that she expressed great admiration for him.

Friends say that, despite issuing the writs against New Statesman and Society and Scallywag, a satirical monthly, Miss Latimer was probably relieved that the rumours about her had finally entered the public domain, giving her the opportunity to deny them.

'She had wanted to put a lid on the whole thing by making a public denial, but the Downing Street press office told her to keep quiet,' one friend said.

'The pressure had always been on her rather than Major. She even suggested going to the opera with Norma (Major) to show how pally they were, but that was squashed. She was unhappy that she didn't get much support from Downing Street.'

Journalists who have asked her about the allegations concerning Mr Major say that she clearly wanted to put her side of the story but had taken a vow of silence. At the end of the New Statesman article, she is quoted as saying: 'I'm sorry but I can't talk to anyone about it . . . I've been told I mustn't comment on it at all by advisors. It's a shame in a way.'

That article, which detailed the evolution of the rumours, said that when the Sunday Times interviewed Miss Latimer for last month's piece, she did not appear to know why they were interested.

This, however, is denied by her friend. 'She knew quite well what it was all about and she decided that if things were being written about her, she might as well do it her own way and get some publicity for the firm.'

The barrister George Carman is giving New Statesman and Society free 'strategic help and advice' in its libel battle with John Major, raising the possibility of the country's best-known QC cross-examining the Prime Minister if the case comes to trial.

(Photograph omitted)