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EDITIONS
Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 22:34 GMT
Minister defends Cherie in flat row
Cherie Booth
Regret: The prime minister's wife Cherie
A cabinet minister has leapt to the defence of the prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, after she confirmed convicted fraudster Peter Foster helped her buy property in Bristol.

In a statement issued via Downing Street, Mrs Blair said Mr Foster had helped by talking to the agents for a flat "for a couple of weeks".


Nobody was lying

Paul Boateng
Mrs Blair's comments are at odds with earlier statements from Number 10, which denied any connection between her and Mr Foster.

In her statement, Mrs Blair says that if she has caused "any misunderstanding between the Number 10 press office and the media that is unfortunate and I regret that".

'Misunderstanding'

Speaking on BBC One's Question Time, chief treasury secretary Paul Boateng insisted no lies had been told by the Downing Street press office or by Mrs Blair.

"Nobody was lying. What Mrs Blair quite clearly doing was giving a version of events.

"She put out the facts and no one disputes them, that there is no wrongdoing on her part."

He said there had been a "misunderstanding" and that should be the end of the matter.

Earlier, Mr Foster held a hastily arranged press conference at which he said he "would never comment" on his dealings with Mrs Blair.

The Downing Street statement came after a series of e-mails between her and Mr Foster were published by the Daily Mail and after Number 10 said talks over the flats were handled by Mrs Blair and her lawyer.


The Daily Mail suggests Mr Foster saved the prime minister's wife a total of 69,000 on the price of two 297,000 flats in Bristol by negotiating personally with the vendor.

Panoramic flat development, Bristol
Cherie Blair bought two flats in this development

Mrs Blair says the negotiations had been completed before Mr Foster became involved.

The newspaper's e-mails show Mr Foster offered Mrs Blair the services of his own accountant to arrange a mortgage, found a letting agent to rent out the flats for her and persuaded the agent to reduce his normal fee.

The claims that Mr Foster, an Australian who has served time in prison, had helped negotiate a discount on the flats emerged at the weekend.


When that claim was initially put to Downing Street, a spokesman insisted that Mr Foster had never been the Blairs' financial adviser, Mr Blair had never met Mr Foster, and Mr Foster had never been to Downing Street or Chequers.

But on Thursday the prime minister's official spokesman said Mrs Blair had decided to issue the statement because of the "continuing personal campaign" by Mail newspapers against her.

He said that a variety of claims in the Mail on Sunday story connected to the flat purchase - including stamp duty and using their position to get a lower price - had been false.

Slimming pill

He added that the Blairs did not want "to enter into a point-by-point rebuttal of any and every allegation because they believe it is none of the Mail's business to know details of any purchase provided it is carried out lawfully and properly as this one was".

In her statement Mrs Blair said that to avoid publicity and because of work commitments, she asked a friend, Carole Caplin, to look at the property for her.

Peter Foster
Peter Foster vowed never to comment on his dealings with Mrs Blair
Ms Caplin visited the property in late October with her boyfriend Peter Foster, Mrs Blair said, adding that she did not know about Mr Foster's past.

"Clearly had I been aware I would have been far more circumspect in my responses to what appeared to be straightforward and friendly offers of assistance from the boyfriend of a friend," she said.

Full responsibility

Later, Downing Street added: "Having heard how some are reporting her statement, Mrs Blair wants to make it clear that she, and she alone, is responsible for any misunderstanding between No 10 press office and the media."

But Mrs Blair asked people to understand that, as well as doing her job in court and other duties, her main preoccupation was to rebut "unfounded allegations about impropriety and illegality" whilst also protecting a reasonable degree of privacy.

Demonstration

Tony Blair was in Bristol on Thursday evening, where he was greeted by a crowd of protesters as he arrived at the city's council building, close to the luxury flats complex.

As he arrived for a private Labour Party event Mr Blair was greeted by a crowd of firefighters, students, anti-war protesters and asylum-seeker campaigners who chanted and sounded air horns.

Australian Mr Foster, a former partner of Page Three model Samantha Fox, was sentenced to 33 months in jail in September 2000 at St Albans Crown Court on three charges of using fraudulent documents to help him obtain credit to launch a slimming pill.

Mr Foster and his partner Carole Caplin, a friend of Mrs Blair, announced on Wednesday that they had lost the baby they were expecting.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"When you are at the top the personal is always political"
Linda McDougal, Cherie Blair's biographer
"She's behaved in a way which can only be described as daft"
The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Downing St has spent the week downplaying stories about Mrs Blair"

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