When you take advice from a new age fashion guru what do you expect?

Former boyfriend’s claims ahead of his book cause headache for Number 10

The abuse which today will begin raining down on the head of Peter Foster should come as no surprise to a convicted conman. In fact, Foster, now living in Australia, will be delighted at the effects his allegations are having at the other end of the world.

After all, advice on how to publicise a new book is much the same today as when Samuel Johnson said: “It’s better a man should be abused than be forgotten.”

Foster told an Australian newspaper: “The heart of my book is the extraordinary influence that Carole has over Tony.

“People think that Cherie is the ugly duckling who Carole advised with clothes and make-up and styling. The truth is that Tony relied on Carole too.”

He added: “The intensity and the closeness of their relationship was something I saw and I was amazed by and annoyed by.”

Foster’s allegation about the “true relationship”, between his former fiancée, Carole Caplin, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has understandably been dismissed by Downing Street as “publicity for his book”. But the alarm bells that rang in Number 10 during the run-up to Christmas 2002 when Cheriegate was in full swing, will be ringing again.

As a former Downing Street aide said last night: “Invite a former topless model and New Age fashion guru into your household, take lifestyle advice from her and well … what do you expect?” The view from one Number 10 source is that Caplin, alone, was acceptable as a friend of the Blairs. But when she took up with Foster, a convicted fraudster, it was seen as a risk too far.

The control freaks inside Number 10 – especially Blair himself and his former Director of Communications Alastair Campbell – did not defuse the potential timebomb, a lapse of judgement that has now come back to haunt Downing Street.

In July 2002, when Foster and Caplin met and fell for each other, Caplin had already enjoyed long access to the Blairs. Cherie Blair met Caplin at a gym in 1992. By 1994, when the new Labour leader’s wife was juggling children, her career as a leading barrister and the responsibility of becoming a prime minister’s wife, she took on Caplin as her adviser on fitness, fashion and probably feng shui.

Caplin’s influence is said to have extended to Tony Blair in the small matter of tie selection and sartorial presentation. Foster, in his accusations, goes much much further. “She picked his clothes, right down to his underpants.”

Back in July 2002, Caplin’s position at the centre of the Blair court, would have been alluring to Foster. His past exploits included selling imaginary boxing matches featuring Mohammed Ali in Australia and serial offences in the fake slimming pills market. He was not slow to spot an opportunity to sell himself to Caplin.

The relationship between someone like Foster and a woman so close to Cherie Blair should have alarmed Downing Street. However, the past exploits of Caplin’s new beau seemed initially at least to have rung few warning bells in Number 10.

Foster’s past could certainly not be hidden. He had a bankruptcy record in Australia; had defrauded an insurance company; and, since first coming to the UK in 1986, he had promoted bogus slimming substances. That had led to jail, fines, deportation and extradition to the UK from Australia to face fraud charges. He had also been a regular subject of investigations by the BBC’s That’s Life programme.

‘‘Cheriegate’’, as it was dubbed by the press, was a disaster waiting to happen. When Cherie Blair had concealed and was then forced to admit Foster’s help in her acquisition of two Bristol flats at the end of 2002, it was a political nightmare for Number 10 that was intense and short-lived. You might have expected that the Blairs’ relationship with Caplin would have been brought to an abrupt end.

But in the summer of 2003, Caplin’s influence over Cherie Blair was evidently still there when Marie Claire magazine sent a reporter and photographer to do a feature on the PM’s wife. It photographed Cherie and her friend sitting on the edge of the Blair’s matrimonial bed, Caplin applying lip-gloss to Cherie’s mouth.

Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell’s partner, had been Cherie’s diary secretary since the Blairs first entered Number 10 in 1997. (She began working for Cherie in 1995 on Alastair Campbell’s recommendation.) Millar also unofficially looked after Cherie’s press coverage, effectively ensuring it was minimal and positive.

The Marie Claire piece highlighted a glaring problem. Millar had lost all control over Cherie. Despite the scandal of “Cheriegate” Caplin was still enjoying open access to Downing Street.

All trust between Cherie and Millar is said to have evaporated in the months after the affair.

Although Foster had gone back to Australia and was no longer Caplin’s fiancee, Caplin herself was still being seen in and around Downing Street seven months after Cheriegate.

The Blairs in the autum of 2003 had had a tough year. Having survived the criticisms of going to war in Iraq, the summer row with the BBC and its reporter Andrew Gilligan and the suicide of Dr David Kelly in mid-July, the coming Hutton Inquiry was going to make the rest of the year no political easy ride.

Tensions inside Downing Street are reported to have been very high. The Marie Claire piece was said to have finally confirmed to Millar that her decision (taken in May 2003) to leave Downing Street was a piece of good timing. Campbell, during the Hutton Inquiry, announced he would going too.

Caplin was still seen as a continuing risk. In September of last year, any notion that Carole Caplin was an acceptable risk to the Blair was dispelled.Her access to Downing Street and to Chequers was halted. Inside Downing Street a decision had been taken to end the “public” appearance of Carole Caplin as a person with influence inside the court of the Blairs. However it is understood that a relationship – at a distance – continued.

Carole Caplan is still in contact with the Blairs and is still bound by the lengthy legal agreement she signed not to divulge any of the secrets she holds about life inside Downing Street.

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