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Sunday 14 March 2004

PM challenged by a conman

IN AN American hotel room some years back, I was watching Bill Clinton on television fraternising with the young when a giggly girl asked him what kind of underpants he wore. 

"I can't believe you're asking this," he said, twinkling and grinning. Having in those days some old-fashioned notions about the dignity of the office of President, I couldn't believe it when he told her. 

And I was even more rattled when Tony Blair, who unlike Clinton was nicely brought up, told the British nation that under his trousers he sported Calvin Klein. God bless Bertie Ahern. He has his failings, but he keeps mum about his underwear. 

Unfortunately for Blair, the underpants are coming back to haunt him in the forthcoming book by the convicted Australian conman, Peter Foster. Remember the story? Cherie Booth, Mrs Blair, who pays around stg£50,000 a year to Foster's ex-lover, the unconventional style guru, Carole Caplin, gratefully accepted Foster's help in buying two flats in Bristol, gave him advice on how to avoid deportation, tried to cover it up, ultimately had to apologise tearfully on television for misleading Number 10 staff and the press and alienated her official minder, Fiona Millar, and Millar's common-law husband and minder of Blair, Alastair Campbell, both of whom have now left Downing Street. 

Dramatically deported from Dublin, Foster returned to Australia. Back in London, despite all the terrible publicity, Carole remained in the bosom of the Blairs and is now a 'C' list celeb who can borrow dresses and diamonds for partying purposes. Now Foster is an enterprising fellow, and he wants to make money out of his brief affair with Carole. Aware that the public are a bit bored with revelations about Carole scrubbing toxins off Cherie and treating her with crystals and dowsing and all various kinds of New Age hocus-pocus, he has sensibly decided to focus publicity for his forthcoming book on the Prime Minister himself. In addition to claiming Caplin chose Blair's underpants, suits, food and God knows what else, Foster is challenging Blair to answer five questions: 

'a) Can he honestly tell the British people and his Cabinet that he has never met me or spoken to me? 

b) Can he personally inform the press that he has never had a single instance of personal contact with me, by phone or in person? 

c) Can he deny that Carole met him privately at Chequers whilst Cherie was out of the country, and gave him long afternoon massages? 

d) Can he deny that Carole didn't return from Chequers until late at night, after taking an afternoon nap in their bed? 

e) Can he deny that he repeatedly telephoned Carole late at night, both when she was at home in London, and when we were on holiday in Spain?' 

Well, for what it's worth, I would guess that the correct answers are a) no; b) yes, but it wouldn't be true; c) no; d) no, though I would think she was on, not in, the bed; and e) no. 

Blair probably fibbed about never having spoken to Foster, but it's not news that he's a bit of a fibber any more than it's news that Foster's a congenital liar. As for the rest, we know Caplin is intimate with the Blair (she calls him 'Toblerone') and all her clients and friends testify that the Caplin style of intimacy is all about massaging and hugging and billing and cooing. Her Vanity Fair interviewer recorded her normal telephone style: "Hello, my darling. How are you, my sweet? Coooool. Oh, fantastic! Whatever works for you, my angel. Lovely! All right, my darling. Bye, sweetheart." Bill Clinton, it is alleged, was so thrilled by Caplin's prowess as a masseuse, not to speak of her appearance (she was wearing a black skin-tight catsuit at the time), that he yearned to "have Carole again for that exercise"). 

And that what's worrying about all this. I don't for one minute buy Foster's insinuations: it's impossible to imagine Tony Blair ever being unfaithful to his wife, to whom he is devoted and of whom he is afraid. But the more one reads about the Caplin woman, the more horrifying it is that a Prime Minister and a first-rank lawyer should be so emotionally starved that they lay out vast sums of money to purchase such a friend. 

Blair has always had a desperate need to surround himself with cronies, like Derry Irvine (who became Lord Chancellor, and who was later replaced by Blair's old flatmate, Charlie Falconer), Peter Mandelson and of course Alastair Campbell, whom he obviously misses terribly. 

But these are people of some substance. Carole Caplin is a beautifully-packaged, intensely ambitious, flatterer and pamperer - the kind of woman one would expect to find in a rock star's entourage. 

There must be something very hollow at the centre of Downing Street.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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