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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 17:36 GMT
'Cherie-gate'? You asked Anthony Howard
Cherie Blair

  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here to read the transcript

    Cherie Blair has apologised for the embarrassment she caused in buying flats with the help of convicted fraudster Peter Foster.

    In an unprecedented public statement on Tuesday, the prime minister's wife apologised for the embarrassment she caused in buying flats with the help of Peter Foster.

    The Tories are continuing to call for a public inquiry into Downing Street's handling of the Cherie Blair flats controversy, despite her emotional apology.

    In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday, Conservative chairman Theresa May said there were still questions to be answered about the government's role in the affair.

    However, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett told Today that some parts of the media had indulged in a "collective viciousness" where every answer prompted more questions.

    Should there be a public enquiry into the controversy? Has Cherie Blair's apology closed the matter? How difficult is it to be the spouse of a prime minister or president?

    You put your questions to political commentator Anthony Howard, who has written a series about 'First Ladies', in an interactive forum.



    Welcome to this BBC News Online Interactive forum. Cherie Blair has been having a horrible time over the controversy surrounding her links with convicted fraudster, Peter Foster. That's according to the Prime Minister, who publicly defended his wife this morning. He accused the media of distortion, saying their reports bore no resemblance to his wife. He described her as woman of integrity and decency.

    Yesterday, Mrs Blair made an emotional apology for the trouble she's caused her husband and the Government. However, the Tories are calling for a public inquiry. But is it time to put an end to the Cheri Blair affair?

    Well, you've been sending in your questions and here to answer them is political commentator and Times columnist, Anthony Howard, who knows quite a bit about First Ladies, I think.

    Welcome Anthony and perhaps I should begin by clarifying that statement. You researched and wrote a radio series on Prime Ministers' and Presidents' wives. So perhaps I should ask you first of all, has anyone else got into this kind of trouble before?

    Anthony Howard:

    Well, I suppose in a way, Nancy Regan got into pretty bad mocking trouble because when it came out - which I think was by one of her husband's employees - that she was in the habit of always consulting an astrologer before anything happened - that did get waves of derision over her.

    Of course, only one half, but only one half, of the Cherie Blair or Booth story is, why does she believe in all these wacky things - crystals etc. There might be a lot of people who'd disagree with me. But, despite being a good Catholic, she does seem to have a great penchant for weird remedies and New Age nonsense, as I'd call it. I think people do find this a bit disturbing - going into pyramids and shouting and rebirth and all that kind of thing. But that's not the main issue here. The main issue clearly is, why didn't she behave with greater candour than in fact she did.


    We've had a lot of e-mails on this issue and they are pretty much divided between the people who think that it's time to lay off her and those who say there are more questions that need to be answered. Simon Richardson, Egham, UK: Why has this poor woman been persecuted like this?

    Has it been fair do you think?

    Anthony Howard:

    I think that she did bring the trouble on her own head. If only at the beginning she'd said - yes, this man did act for me in buying two flats and all the rest of it - it would have been perfectly alright. Instead of that she denied things that were true - or the Press Office denied them on her behalf and that was because, I think, the Press Office weren't armed with the correct information and as she herself has very courageously said - I take full responsibility. So in the beginning, I think it was a self-inflicted wound frankly.


    Chris Cole, Reading, UK: How can Mrs Blair not know the record of Mr Foster? I would hate to come up in front of a judge who does not know things like this. Would you?

    Anthony Howard:

    Well, I didn't know anything about Mr Foster until a fortnight ago - maybe he was well known. I think she can be defended on that. It seems to me that if your dresser - the lady who actually makes sure that she looks alright - if she says, I've got a new boyfriend and he's been in a bit of trouble in the past but he's actually a reformed character - you don't say what kind of trouble was in his in, it looks rather rude - you say really well I hope you're very happy. And then you know that Carole's got pregnant by this man and you, I think, are sympathetic. You don't start saying - had he been convicted or anything like that.

    So I slightly am on her side about that. I think that it wasn't her fault that her intimate close friend, who now looks after all her clothes etc. formed this association. She did say last night, quite rightly I think - I can be responsible for my friends, I can't be responsible for my friend's friends - and I think that's right.


    Eilish Ashby, Lincoln, England: As a professional woman myself, I admire Mrs Blair and all fair minded people I know think she has had an extremely raw deal. My question for Mr Howard: Do you think that journalistic standards are dropping in the interests of circulation figures?

    Anthony Howard:

    Well certainly if you look back - all the time Harold Macmillan was prime minister, Lady Dorothy Macmillan was still carrying on her affair with Robert Boothby and the public weren't given an inkling of that. Whether the journalists knew - I think they did actually - but it wasn't the kind of thing that was in the public domain.

    So I think that journalism has become much more intrusive and in that sense perhaps it has become much harder to be in public life. Nowadays we talk a lot about transparency and that means people are entitled to know and I'm not surprised that Mrs Blair thinks that there ought to be things that off limits. And that when she comes to buying a flat for son in Bristol, who's at university there, that's not of any public interest. But of course if you're a prime minister's wife, I think nowadays it is a public interest.


    An e-mail has just come in from Ian Marlow in the UK: I was dismayed she made the speech. In giving in to the tabloids' intrusions, she's strengthened their position and weakened that of those who wish to keep their private matters just that.

    Was she right, do you think, to make that speech?

    Anthony Howard:

    I think that she didn't have much choice and I'll tell you why. If she hadn't made that speech, when Tony Blair goes to Copenhagen at the end of this week, there would be no way that the British press core - they wouldn't have asked him anything about the European Summit, they'd have just asked him about his wife, the flat and Euan and this kind of thing. So I think in a sense she was trying to deflect it away from the Prime Minister in saying, look, it's my fault, I ought to own up to it.

    I think in a sense she did give into the tabloids. She doesn't like making public statements. She said she wanted to crawl away and this kind of thing, which she wasn't going to. But I think that she felt that she had to do it and I suspect she was right.


    Do you think it will draw a line under the whole thing?

    Anthony Howard:

    I don't know, we'll have to wait and see whether the Conservative Party goes on with it. I think that they face quite a tough decision as to whether they will alienate sympathy if they go on pursuing and saying there are certain questions that have still got to be answered.

    I don't myself think that there are any more questions to be answered. I think I'm now satisfied that the way that Mr Foster had his date changed from the 18th to the 6th December when he should be leaving - he hasn't left yet, as far as I'm aware. But all that's got an innocent explanation, it seems to me and that was done by the immigration office and was nothing to do with Whitehall.

    So I think that most of the questions now are answered. But of course, if the Mail goes on banging away - and it's not just the Mail by the way, a very old Labour paper, called the Daily Mirror with a mass circulation - that has been extremely hostile to the Prime Minister's wife and they've obviously have got an agenda of their own.


    Peter L. Walker, London, UK: Can you explain why has this Cherie issue been dealt with by the Civil Service - the Downing Street machine - rather than the PR set up at her Chambers Matrix? And why is she communicating with friends and personal financial advisors from an UK.Gov e-mail address rather than her private or commercial set up.

    Do you think there has been a bit of a blurring of the distinctions between personal and government here?

    Anthony Howard:

    I think that's a very good question. I think unlike a First Lady in America who's given enormous staff - the east wing of the White House is the First Lady's province and she has her social secretary, her press secretary etc. - the Prime Minister's wife gets nothing.

    I think it was a mistake probably for this to be handled by No. 10. The official spokesmen are not spokesmen for the Prime Minister's wife. She is not the First Lady. If there is a First Lady of this realm it is, I have to say, Her Majesty the Queen and it's not the Prime Minister's wife. Whereas the President's wife in the United States, is the wife of a head of state and therefore has a certain quasi-constitutional position of her own which the Prime Minister's wife in this country doesn't have.

    So I think it's a good question to ask - why was it handled in this way - they must have some kind of public information officer in her chambers, the Matrix Chambers. I think it would have been much better if it had been handled by the people who are employed to look after her at the Bar.


    That leads us onto a question from David Kemp, Carlisle, UK: Is it true that Mrs Blair has a press officer paid for by the taxpayer and if so how can that be justified? Either she is a "public" person or she is not.

    Anthony Howard:

    Well she doesn't any longer. For the first term, Alistair Campbell's partner acted as press officer to the Prime Minister's wife and was I think paid for from public funds. But she is now some strange title, like events organiser at No. 10 and apart from her friend Carole, I don't think there is anyone who is answerable to Mrs Blair though obviously Alistair Campbell, as a director of communications, keeps an eye on things.

    But there is no longer a single person and looking after Mrs Blair and I think that may mean one of the lessons to be drawn from this in that it was better when there was. But I think she had some kind of fallout with Fiona, who was her press secretary and Alistair Campbell's partner and that came to an end after the last election in 2001.


    Ceri Pemberton, London UK: At a time when Tony Blair wants to make it increasingly expensive for middle class families to send their children to university his wife is buying a flat for his son to ensure his son does not have the same pressures and expense as other students over rent and accommodation. I wonder why none of the reports I have read have focused on the apparent double standards of this?

    Anthony Howard:

    I think it's a very good question. I think it has registered with the public. The public have thought it pretty odd that at a time when people are talking about top-up fees, loans and student tax, this one undergraduate at Bristol should have a flat bought for him worth 250,000. There are not many parents who do that - you live in digs when you're at university or you are in college - I imagine he's in college at the moment or he's in a hall of residence - and the second year he'll move out.

    But it is pretty lavish treatment to get a flat of your own costing over 250,000. I think people will draw - especially Labour voters - their own conclusions and say it is very odd when public policy is saying that students have got to pay their way. What happens to this one charmed, gilded youth, the son of the Prime Minister and his wife - he gets presented with a flat worth 250,000.


    Jenny Day, Cornwall, UK: Journalists tell us that there are still a lot of unanswered questions. So what?

    Is there anything else that we really need to know?

    Anthony Howard:

    I don't think that there is. I think there were - there was the question about why the date was moved for his deportation. As I say, I don't think Mr Foster's gone yet but he was told he was safe until the 18th and suddenly they said - get rid of him as soon as possible. But I think that question now has been answered. It didn't have any political motivation behind it.

    I suppose the confession, if you like, of the Prime Minister's wife in saying, there are two things I regret, I shouldn't have done that - she's made an apology, although I think she should have said a bit more. Just saying that she was responsible for the misunderstanding in the Press Office - those are weasel words, misunderstanding. She ought to have said, I was responsible for my lack of candour and that would have been more honest, it seems to me. But I think we now know the story and I can't think that it will run and run like the Mousetrap.


    John, UK: Has this been an acceptable standard of behaviour from a QC?

    Do you think it has, as some people have suggested, possibly jeopardised her career?

    Anthony Howard:

    I think oddly enough that it probably has done some damage. Let's suppose the Lord Chancellor were to announce in two month's time - and she's about the right age, she had all the experience and been a recorder, she been a QC now for six or seven years - that he was nominating her to the Bench - Derry Irvine, Lord Chancellor - to be a judge on the Queen's Bench, I think they'd be one hell of a row. Now I think in two year's time it may all be forgotten.

    But I think any chance that Cherie had of getting onto the Bench before her 50th birthday - nowadays judges do tend to get made at 48, 49 years old - I think that's gone. I think she'll now be that much older though I think she will eventually probably get on the Bench. She wants to go there and be a High Court Judge but I think it's been delayed.


    A number of people have said that they've wondered how someone in a job like that, clearly understanding the law, could in effect be so nave as to get herself in this mess.

    Anthony Howard:

    I think there's something in that. I think that the fact of the matter is that people do think it a bit odd that this con-man - and I think I can safely say that because he's been convicted - should have been able to infiltrate so easily and get "you're a star" from the Prime Minister's wife on e-mails and that kind of thing. Anyone who said to me, "my purpose is your pleasure" - I'd give them a pretty wide berth. I think it was said with a certain sexual connotation - as I say to Carole, he said, "my purpose is your pleasure". But nonetheless, I'd say I don't think that sounds like the kind fellow I'd want to be dealing with. So I think she has been a bit nave and I suppose part of being a judge is having rather good critical facilities and they don't seem to have operated in this case.


    Another e-mail has just come in. Phil asks: the only question that needed to be asked was - has anything illegal been done? It appears that the answer to this is no. So really it's none of anyone's business what Mrs Blair chooses to do with her own money.

    Fair point?

    Anthony Howard:

    No. I think if anything illegal had been done then obviously she should be charged and all that. No, I think there's a question of judgment and prudence comes into this. Caesar's wife as they used to say, she's got to beyond suspicion. And I think by her own actions, she did put herself in a rather vulnerable position. It was her own fault for not telling the truth when the Mail on Sunday story originally came out 10 days ago.


    Another question has just come in from Bob: Maybe Cheri Blair should resign from the post of wife of the Prime Minister.

    Anthony Howard:

    Well there is no such post - you can't resign from it. In a sense, she is the first prime minister's wife to try and lead an independent career. This is just like Hilary Clinton who said, I'm going to be a politician even when she was still First Lady and ran for the Senate in New York - she was lawyer too, like Cherie.

    Up to now we've always had prime ministers' wives and indeed one prime minister's husband, Dennis Thatcher, who has been quite content to be an appendage of their spouse. Now she is different - she says I am an independent woman, I'm pursuing a career of own in law and I am not going to simply be an ornament to the Prime Minister. This does create certain problems if things go wrong and I think we've seen an illustration of that in the past few days. But she can't resign from the position. Short of divorcing Tony Blair, she can't give up being the wife of the Prime Minister.


    You mentioned Hilary Clinton, do you see any parallel between Hilary and Cherie Blair? Both in their own ways have turned out to be quite controversial characters.

    Anthony Howard:

    I think that Hilary was a trailblazer. She is the first wife of a president ever to win elective office - even Eleanor Roosevelt never ran for elective office, she became an ambassador of the UN but she didn't run for office. Cheri has had to get people accustomed to the idea that it's possible to be the spouse of the Prime Minister and at the same time to have an independent working life as a woman in your own right.


    That's all we have time for in this Interactive forum. My thanks to our guest, Anthony Howard and to you for your many e-mails on this subject. Goodbye.

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