Forget the protocols, Cherie has a private chat with the Pope

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The Independent Online

Cherie Blair, who famously flouts convention by refusing to curtsy to the Queen, found herself again out of step with protocol during an impromptu private audience with the Pope. The Prime Minister's wife, a devout Roman Catholic, was at a Vatican conference on children and young people when she was unexpectedly summoned to the Pontiff's library.

It is customary for those meeting the Pope to wear black, but Mrs Blair was decked out in head to toe white. And if she had known of the encounter, surely she would have employed the services of André Suard, the personal hairdresser who attended to her during last year's election campaign, costing the Labour Party £275 a day?

The UK ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, said the Prime Minister's wife was "thrilled", adding: "It was unexpected. There was to be a general audience next Tuesday for delegates to the conference but Mrs Blair isn't staying that long and we found out this morning that the Pope wanted to meet her and invited her for a purely private audience. They had a one-to-one conversation for 10 minutes. She was very honoured, excited and thrilled."

The details of the conversation remain secret although Mrs Blair could have talked fashion with Pope Benedict XVI, well known to Vatican watchers for his red Prada loafers and Gucci shades. But it may further fuel speculation that her husband may be preparing to convert to Catholicism after he steps down.

Both Blairs met the late Pope John Paul II in 2003. Mrs Blair also delivered a speech on social policy and children and young people to the conference organised by Professor Pierpaolo Donati of the University of Bologna, titled, "Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Young People in an Age of Turbulence".

In his own address, Pope Benedict spelt out an uncompromising message Mrs Blair will no doubt relay to the Deputy Prime Minister John Pres-cott, whose affair is adding to the turbulence now buffeting Downing Street.

The Pope told the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that a lack of " true love" was behind an increase in failed marriages. He said the increase in life expectancy and decline in birth rates were "linked to a disturbing deficit of faith, hope and indeed love".