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Sunday 12 June 2005

No trifle, Cherie's tenacious grasp of the freebies

NORMALLY, I emerge swiftly from financial-crisis-engendered gloom by reminding myself about feckless friends who are still alive and with roofs over their heads. These days, I dwell instead on Cherie Blair. The woman has the capacity to earn hundreds of thousands a year as a legal hot-shot, her husband is Prime Minister, they live rent-free, they don't pay for their holidays and Cherie is a notorious freebie-grabber, yet they are in deep financial trouble. And, what's worse, in her anxiety to get out of the mess she's gotten them into, she's bringing shame and ignominy on her husband. 

It's quite hard to lose money as a home-owner: you buy while prices are going up rather than down and hang on or upgrade during the periods when there's a downturn. Initially, before Tony became famous, Cherie did quite well. Indeed, prudently - even parsimoniously - she avoided stamp duty and estate agents' fees by acquiring their £560,000 Islington house through a swap. 

Less sensible was her decision to sell for £920,000 in 1997 when the family moved to Downing Street, at a time when the property market was buzzing about the implications of the new housing boom. Reputedly she's never got over the house being resold within months for around £2,500,000. 

Her next housing disaster caused a huge political scandal. In 2002, at the top of the boom for middle-of-the-range urban flats, Cherie allowed Peter Foster, the ex-con boyfriend of her weird, opportunistic guru, Carole Caplin, to negotiate the purchase of two flats in Bristol, where Euan Blair was an undergraduate. Her investment was just under £800,000, so her losses were not too heavy, but after the media-storm that followed her attempts to cover up her relationship with Foster, she had to grovel to the public. 

Yet in a spirit of defiance, she had herself photographed by Marie Claire magazine, sitting on her marital bed having her lips painted by Caplin. It was not surprising that her minder, Fiona Millar - as fierce a protector of Cherie as her partner, Alastair Campbell, was of Tony - got tired of being ignored and resigned. Since Tony is notoriously a domestic appeaser, Cherie was now free to do what she liked. 

The purchase of a London house for almost £5,400,000 at a time when the air was thick with prophecies about the slow-down or collapse of the property market was stupid: the choice of house was incomprehensible. 

Some years ago I used to visit aged friends in Connaught Square, and know that what Cherie bought is a high (they needed a lift), dark and narrow house with no garden, near two arterial roads, in an area so full of wealthy Arabs and the shops that cater for them that it is known as Little Lebanon. For a family with a small child it is awful. It was no surprise that it took ages to find tenants, and that the rental doesn't begin to cover the enormous mortgage. If Tony would just give up being Prime Minister and flog his memoirs, all would be well. But he likes power more than money. 

Cherie seems some time ago to have decided that slogging away in the courts would not solve her problems. Hence The Goldfish Bowl: Married to the Prime Minister 1955-1997 - which though mostly written by Cate Haste (wife to Melvyn Bragg - a New Labour peer) - was marketed by innumerable interviews with the Prime Minister's wife, calling herself Cherie Booth. It sold disappointingly, but it gave her an excuse to give well-paid public lectures as Ms Booth QC while cashing-in on her status as Mrs Blair. This unravelled when on a tour of Australia and New Zealand as Cherie Blair to raise money for a charity, she was revealed to have earned a fee of £150,000. 

But the worst was yet to come. To her husband's evident embarrassment, she raked in £45,000 in Washington last week for a discussion on life in Downing Street. 

It wasn't just Conservatives who complained bitterly about the misuse of her position. 

"Outrageous," said ex-Cabinet Minister Clare Short, speaking for many Labour Party backbenchers. Previously devoted media fans line up to savage her. She's "out of control" and "has gone too far," said Anne McElvoy of the Evening Standard, a previous stout defender. "Unsavoury, to put it mildly," said Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, wringing her hands over the Blairs' greed. Cherie won no support when she preposterously claimed her critics were sexist. 

Ms Booth/Mrs Blair is not a bad person, but she is typical of the New Labour conviction that - because they believe themselves to be high-minded and pure - they can do whatever the hell they like and still occupy the high moral ground. 

They can't. That pillar of rectitude, Gordon Brown, is watching and licking his lips.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards