London, Dec. 6: Cherie Blair was forced to apologise last night after admitting that she had been helped by a convicted fraudster, Peter Foster, to buy two flats in Bristol at a discount.
Her admission, contradicting earlier denials by Downing Street, caused great embarrassment for Tony Blair, raised serious questions about her judgment and compromised the integrity of the No 10 press office.
It was a humiliating day for Cherie Blair, a senior QC and a part-time judge, as details emerged of emails between her and Foster, who has served prison terms in Australia, the US and Britain.
He is wanted for questioning in Australia over a £1.4 million slimming product fraud.
Cherie Blair, who described Foster as a “star” in one email, said she was unaware of his criminal background. Had she known of it, she would have been more “circumspect” about his offer of help.
Foster is the boyfriend of Carole Caplin, a former topless model and now Cherie Blair’s “lifestyle” guru and close friend.
Downing Street refused to comment on the suggestion that Cherie Blair had been told about Foster’s background despite her denials. Asked about the claim from one of Caplin’s circle that she “knew everything” about Foster, a No 10 spokesman said: “There is nothing further to add to what we have already said today.” Cherie Blair said she asked Caplin to look at the property “to avoid publicity and because of work commitments”.
Both Cherie Blair and Downing Street denied that she had acted improperly in securing a reduction in the price of the flats from £295,000 each to £269,000 each.
She issued a detailed statement confirming her links with Foster after the Daily Mail published a series of emails between them during October and November.
These showed that Foster had been closely involved in the negotiations to buy the two properties in Bristol, where the Blair’s eldest son, Euan, is attending university. One was for him to live in. The other was an investment for the Blairs, who are understood to have regretted selling their Islington home when Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 and missing out on the boom in property prices.
The full resources of the Downing Street machine were mobilised earlier this week to deny the allegations.
When the Prime Minister’s spokesman was asked on Tuesday whether Foster had played a role in purchasing any flat for the Blairs, he said: “If any negotiations had taken place, they had been carried out by Cherie Blair and her lawyer.”
But that was shown to have been untruthful when an extraordinary statement from Cherie Blair was read to political journalists at Downing Street’s morning briefing yesterday.
It must have been one of the most embarrassing personal apologies ever delivered by a serving Prime Minister’s wife.
Cherie Blair was in court yesterday in her role as lawyer. But the admission that she had misled people, as well as the disclosure of her links to a convicted criminal, could jeopardise her ambition to become a High Court judge.
By a twist of timing, Blair visited Bristol last night for a private Labour Party event. He was greeted by a crowd of protesters.
Cherie Blair’s statement said that “for a couple of weeks of the negotiations” Foster had helped her by talking to the property agents, “making suggestions to me about the best price to secure and corresponding with me by email”.
Cherie Blair maintained that it was during early discussions, before Foster’s direct involvement, that she secured a drop in the price of the flats.
However, the emails suggested that Foster was far more closely involved in the deal, including negotiations over carpets and possible lettings, than either she or Downing Street were prepared to acknowledge.
She told him: “I cannot thank you enough, Peter, for taking these negotiations over for me.” He told her to let him know when he could be of service because “as I tell Carole, your pleasure is my purpose”.
Cherie Blair insisted that the purchase of the properties had been carried out properly and said “any reasonable person” would accept “I have done nothing improper”.
“Foster never asked for nor received remuneration. He was simply the boyfriend of a friend who was helping me out when I was busy.”
Mrs Blair said many allegations, such as an attempt to avoid stamp
duty, were false. She argued that any misleading information had
been due to her natural attempt to protect the privacy of her
"If in not wanting to put into the public domain any and every
detail of what I believe to be private issues I have caused any
misunderstanding between the No 10 press office and the media that
is unfortunate and I regret that."
She was forced to issue a further statement to clear up
suggestions that Downing Street might have been involved in a
cover-up. At the afternoon briefing, the Prime Minister's
spokesman indicated that Mrs Blair was effectively admitting that
she was responsible for misleading the press office.
Officials said she wanted to make it clear "that she and she alone
is responsible for any misunderstanding between the No 10 press
office and the media".
She asked the media "to understand that, as well as being in court
and fulfilling her other duties, her main pre-occupation was to
rebut the unfounded allegations about impropriety and
Downing Street denied that it had sought to mislead. The spokesman
said the press office did not need to know whether Foster had
played a role because the transaction was concluded lawfully.
He insisted that Mrs Blair had not been pressed as to the
fraudster's involvement because it was not central to the issue of
whether the sale was improper.
Foster, who was jailed for 33 months in September 2000 for using
fraudulent documents to help him obtain credit to launch a
slimming pill, said he had never hidden his past from anyone and
that he regarded his involvement with Mrs Blair as confidential.
Speaking outside his north London home, he said: "It is a past I
naturally regret but as everybody who knows me is fully aware, I
have paid my dues and I have moved on, having learned from those
The episode has raised more questions about the Downing Street
press operation run by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's
director of communications.
4 December 2002: House prices rise by 25 per cent in year
3 December 2002: 'Blair flats' conman faces new allegations
2 December 2002: Conman's girlfriend is Cherie Blair's guest at
24 August 2002: Euan Blair misses out on place at Oxford
19 June 2002: Anger at Cherie 'sympathy' for suicide bombers
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