Mrs Blair 'must have separate media adviser'

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 08 December 2002 01:00
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Civil servants are pressing for Cherie Blair to make her own arrangements to handle media inquiries about her life, after a week in which Downing Street has been engulfed in the controversy around her business dealings with a convicted fraudster.

Mrs Blair has not had her own press officer since last year's general election, and is rumoured to have been taking advice on handling the media from her friend and fitness guru, Carole Caplin, partner of Peter Foster, the convicted conman who helped her to buy two flats in Bristol.

The wife of a US president is supplied with her own team of staff to handle her public appearances and advise her on handling the media.

But there is no similar arrangement for prime ministers' wives, although Mrs Blair is continually in the public eye.

For several years, Mrs Blair's paid press adviser was Fiona Millar, an old friend of the Blair family and the partner of Downing Street's communications director Alastair Campbell.

Ms Millar stepped down from the job in June last year, after the general election, and now works in 10 Downing Street with the title of events organiser, though officials say she also "keeps a watching brief" on Mrs Blair's press coverage.

But at crucial moments during last week, when Mrs Blair was in the eye of a media storm, messages were being conveyed from Mrs Blair to Downing Street via her husband. Senior civil servants who faced intensive questioning from the press about Mrs Blair's relationship with Miss Caplin and Mr Foster had to answer without having had any direct contact with the Prime Minister's wife at all.

Senior civil servants are adamant that it is not part of their job to question the Prime Minister's wife, and that she should not be expected to tell them anything about her personal life.

They say they should have been involved in the controversy over the Blairs' decision to buy property in Bristol only to the limited extent that it reflected on Tony Blair's reputation as a politician.

One civil servant said: "Where there is an allegation that the Blairs have used their family name to purchase a property at a reduced rate, we need to become involved because it's about the Prime Minister using his position in a proper way. Once we have dealt with that single issue, then it's a private matter."

Downing Street reacted to the first press inquiries about the Prime Minister's wife and the convicted fraudster Peter Foster last weekend with a brief statement that he was not acting as the family's financial adviser. They refused to give any further details of Mrs Blair's links with Mr Foster.

That line was given to Downing Street's staff by the Prime Minister, who was at that time the only person in the Government to discuss the allegations with Mrs Blair. Tony Blair acted as a go-between between his wife and his staff later in the week, after she had been irritated by television or radio news bulletins which appeared to blame Downing Street staff for misleading the press.

Mrs Blair gave her husband a statement accepting full responsibility for any "misunderstanding" between journalists and the Downing Street press office. Mr Blair passed the statement onto his staff, who released it.

Who else knows the PM's wife?

Cherie Blair was under pressure yesterday to give more details of her dealings with the convicted conman Peter Foster and his associates who are facing criminal charges.

Mr Foster, the 40-year-old Australian who helped Mrs Blair to purchase two flats in Bristol, not only has past criminal convictions, but is also allegedly under investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry over an allegation that he has breached a ban on holding directorships.

Mr Foster is reported to be running a slimming company in Surrey, despite a five-year ban imposed two years ago, when he was jailed for fraud.

The DTI said yesterday that they could not confirm whether the firm named was under investigation.

Andrew Axelsen, the accountant approached by Mr Foster to help to negotiate the sale of two Bristol flats to the Blairs, is awaiting trial at the Old Bailey on suspected money-laundering charges.

A co-defendant in the case is the solicitor Martin Williams, whose name also appears in leaked emails sent by Mr Foster to the Prime Minister's wife.

Mr Foster sent Mrs Blair an email suggesting that Mr Axelsen, who runs a firm of chartered accountants, should help to get her a mortgage.

He added: "He will not charge you for his services as I will pay him for his time." Mr Foster later said that he had paid £4,000, but had not asked Mrs Blair to reimburse the money.

He also recommended Mr Williams's firm of solicitors, describing them as "small firm, small bill" – but Mrs Blair chose to hire a different solicitor.

More revelations are expected today, as four former associates of Mr Foster or his girlfriend Carole Caplin have approached the publicist Max Clifford with stories about their links with the Blairs.

Mrs Blair released one statement earlier in the week about her links with Mr Foster, after a series of emails had been leaked to the Daily Mail. Yesterday, Downing Street refused to add to what had already been said.

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