'Trail-Blazing First Lady of Downing Street' earns £20,000 fee for interview

Cherie accused of cashing in on PM's trip to the United States
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Cherie Blair was dragged into political controversy last night when it emerged that she will be in the USA, on a lucrative speaking tour, in the same week that her husband is paying an official visit to the White House.

Cherie Blair was dragged into political controversy last night when it emerged that she will be in the USA, on a lucrative speaking tour, in the same week that her husband is paying an official visit to the White House.

The Prime Minister's wife is due to appear a week today at a ticket-only event at the Kennedy Centre, in Washington, for which her fee is reputed to be more than £20,000. She will be interviewed for 45 minutes by the CNN presenter Paula Zahn, and will then take questions from the audience.

Publicity for the event billed Mrs Blair as "The Trail-Blazing First Lady of Downing Street". Tickets for the event range in price from £30 to £330, and it is understood that almost every place in the 2,450-seat centre has been filled. Mr Blair is also expected to be in Washington early next week to meet President Bush, ahead of this summer's summit of the world's richest nations at Gleneagles in July. They will discuss British proposals for reducing Third World debt and greenhouse gas emissions, which are being opposed by the US government.

Downing Street said yesterday that Mrs Blair's visit was arranged "a long time ago", and that she and her husband were "likely" to be travelling separately. But Mrs Blair came under fire from the Tories for apparently cashing in from her husband's official engagements. Chris Grayling, the shadow Leader of the Commons, told The Mail on Sunday: "This is the sort of thing that really calls into question his judgement. Surely he must realise how bad it looks for his family, making money in a way which is so clearly linked to his duties as head of government."

Mrs Blair's anxiety to raise money is partly rooted in a decision the couple made in 1997 to sell their Islington home and move into Downing Street, taking themselves off London's lucrative property ladder. They sold the house for £615,000, but it is now thought to be worth almost three times that.

She tried to re-enter the property market three years ago by buying two flats in Bristol for £525,000 - only to have them drop in value by £50,000. When Tony Blair was considering quitting Downing Street last year, the couple bought a £3.65m town house in London, but then had difficulty finding a tenant. They had to rent it out for £2,000 a week, half of what they had hoped for.

Earlier this year, she was criticised for receiving a reported £125,000 fee as payment for a six-date speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand. Her early exit from the dinner on the last night of the tour did nothing to endear her to the guests, who had paid £110 each to hear her speak.

There have also been questions asked over the cost of covering her security on previous lecture tours to the US, including one earlier this year to Samford University.

For a woman who earns an estimated £250,000 a year as a leading human rights lawyer, Mrs Blair has gained a reputation as a bargain hunter since her husband became prime minister. Examples of her thrift, include her purchase of a 99p Winnie the Pooh alarm clock for her son Leo on eBay.

Mrs Blair's status as a semi-public figure has opened her to frequent criticism, particularly in newspapers hostile to the Labour Party. The front page of yesterday's Daily Mail was filled with an account of how a police motorcyclist was dispatched with siren blaring to fetch her passport after she had left it behind when she set off to join her husband for a quiet weekend in Tuscany.



Australian-born conman Peter Foster, the partner of Cherie Blair's lifestyle guru Carole Caplin, claimed to have helped the Blairs negotiate a bargain price for two Bristol flats. Mrs Blair later had to issue a formal statement admitting Foster had been involved.

Supermarket sweep

Offered free pick of the items at a Melbourne department store, Mrs Blair swept out with 68 items, only belatedly offering to pay for them. Her purchases included pyjamas, pillow cases, miniskirts, boxer shorts and a lunch box.

Australian tour

On a previous speaking tour in Australia, Mrs Blair was reported to have received a £100,000 fee along with free flights, accommodation and Jaguar courtesy car while raising funds for cancer research. Some of her speeches were judged more book-plugging than original speechifying.