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Not many conmen and their lovers can rely on the PM's wife to rush to their aid..but most don't act on her behalf in a pounds 500,000 property deal; PAUL ROUTLEDGE ON THE MURKY BLAIR AFFAIR.

Byline: PAUL ROUTLEDGE

CHERIE Blair sticks by her pals, even if they are crooks facing deportation. She called solicitors acting for conman Peter Foster to seek reassurances that legal proceedings against him were being conducted "on a regular and normal basis"."

The conversation took place as a conference call involving Carole Caplin, Foster's girlfriend and Cherie's "style guru".

Foster's solicitors, who took the call, say that Mrs Blair was "simply seeking to provide support and assurance to her friend Carole". They emphasised that she did not intrude in the conduct of the proceedings.

Not bad, eh? Not many conmen and their girlfriends can rely on the Prime Minister's wife to rush to their aid.

But then, most of them don't act on Cherie's behalf in a pounds 500,000-plus property transaction.

Quite why the Prime Minister's wife should get involved in this shady business at all is beyond my understanding. She isn't Foster's brief, nor is she Minister for Immigration. But she is behaving as if she was both.

If I were Foster's solicitor, acting on his second appeal against deportation to Australia, I would say to the court: "These proceedings have been tainted by political association. My client is being thrown out of the country to avoid further embarrassment to the Prime Minister's wife."

And then what? Mrs Blair is a top lawyer and a part-time judge. Yet instead of keeping out of this murky affair, she calls the conman's solicitor. It beggars belief that she should be so stupid - or so cavalier about her legal and political responsibilities.

In another twist to Cheriegate, Tony Blair announced yesterday that he has investigated himself, and is "Not guilty. Of anything".

How very convenient for the Prime Minister. He is judge and jury in his own corruption trial.

Peter Foster must be wishing he could opt for the same system instead of having to put up with good old British justice.

The latest addition to the charge sheet against "Fingers" Blair concerns his awareness of his "blind" trust being used to buy two pounds 263,0000 flats in Bristol.

It is, of course, perfectly legal to set up a trust fund for your kids. Rich folk do it all the time. Not many firefighters do. They haven't got half a million to spare.

But a blind trust is different. It is supposed to be controlled by trustees, not by the Blairs. They are not supposed to have access to the money, or know what is done with it.

The Prime Minister yesterday refused to name the trustees. We do not know if he authorised the expenditure of more than half a million smackers through a third party with a criminal record as long as John Prescott's punching arm.

Mrs Blair knew that the cash came from the blind trust because the smoking emails between her and conman Foster reveal her role in the affair.

Does anyone really believe that her husband DIDN'T know that such a huge transaction had taken place?

In the absence of prime ministerial honesty, we have no way of knowing whether the rules have been broken.

All we have is Blair's word that he has done nothing wrong. That verdict is endorsed by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, who, helpfully, is also appointed by the Premier. But Blair has also appeared in another, and less forgiving, court: the bar of public opinion. Voters have reached a different verdict to Judge Fingers - 58 per cent think that Labour is sleazier than the Tories, and half think the Prime Minister is untrustworthy.

In the end, the final court of appeal is a general election. The voters will decide whether he is trustworthy.

And when that time comes, the British people will remember what they are going through now: a steep learning curve about the appetite for financial shenanigans in New Labour. An ex-minister in this government told me yesterday that the Blairs' interest in money amounts almost to an obsession.

It's true, that's what he said. He shook his head in disbelief about this unsavoury aspect of politics.

I don't know why he was so surprised. It has always been true that Labour scandals are about money, while Tory scandals are about sex. That's because Labour politicians usually came from the have-nots, while the Tories are more concerned with have-somebody. Cherie came from a difficult social background.

Her actor father, Tony Booth, was a wastrel. But she was not from the bottom of the pile. She was no barefoot Scouse kid and she is now a wealthy barrister.

So why is she still so obsessed with money?

Tony Blair has failed to ensure that Caesar's wife is above suspicion. That error today places him in the front line of political uncertainty.

He will not escape the punishment piling up for him until he comes to the House of Commons and makes a statement.

If he can convince Parliament that he has done nothing wrong, he might just persuade the people.

As things stand he sounds like Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, saying: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

CAPTION(S):

CONFERENCE CALL: Foster's lover Carole Caplin; CHERIE'S LATEST ADVISERS; Mrs Blair tried to put her recent worries behind her last night as she turned on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights. Wearing a pounds 455 red Burberry coat, she was joined by wizards and 20 children from Barnardo's
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 10, 2002
Words:904
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