Byline: GEOFFREY LEVY;GORDON RAYNER
THIS time, they haven't felt the need for a cosy dinner to reaffirm an enduring friendship. This time, there has been no personal statement from Cherie Blair about 'my friend Carole'. This time, the embarrassing onslaught has been met with a Prime Ministerial implacability that seems to be saying: 'Do your worst.' There can hardly be a household in Britain that has not by now pondered the uniquely intimate and unshakable relationship between the occupants of No. 10 Downing Street and the lissom lifestyle guru Carole Caplin. No amount of adversity, it seems, can keep them apart.
At the end of 2002, the Prime Minister's wife was forced to apologise over misleading the public about her relationship with Carole's then boyfriend, conman Peter Foster. He had privately negotiated the purchase of two Bristol flats for her in what became known as ' Cheriegate'. Eventually, thrice-jailed Foster was barred from Britain and expelled from Ireland - despite being given unofficial advice from QC Cherie - and went home to Australia.
But now, Foster has returned to haunt the Blairs. For the past two weeks, from the Gold Coast where he has been writing a memoir, he has been producing a flurry of jaw-dropping allegations involving the Blairs and Carole.
The Blairs would be inhuman not to feel anger and unease at the 'revelations' - garnered, Foster says, during a lengthy affair with Caplin during which she conceived, and sadly lost, a baby - a baby, he now cruelly asserts which might not have been his.
And yet, although Carole is responsible for introducing this dangerous figure into the Blairs' charmed circle, none of the dirt that he has unleashed against the Blairs has dislodged the 42-year-old former topless model from her pivotal place at the side of Cherie, whose life she continues to influence.
One reason, clearly, is that Foster is a glib and practised liar who has served three jail sentences for fraud. Government ministers desperately wheeled out to bat him off in recent days, describe him witheringly as a 'fantasist' trying to publicise his as yet unpublished autobiography.
So what are we to make of his outrageous and even unsavoury claims about the Blairs? Could this convicted fraudster just for once be telling it like it was?
We have been investigating his claims and - surprise, surprise - much of what he says is, indeed, fantasy. On the other hand, we have confirmed through reliable sources that some of it is undoubtedly true.
For example, take Foster's blatantly mischievous claim that Carole once slept in the Blairs' marital bed at Chequers while Cherie was away. What we have confirmed is that she did, in fact, sleep in the Blairs' bed in Downing Street - not just once, but many times.
Even taking into account the complex and bizarre nature of the relationship, the strange sight of MsCaplin snuggled up between the Blairs' clean sheets in the middle of the day was something the Downing Street staff never quite got used to.
Those who witnessed Carole's daytime visits to the Blairs' marital bed - a king-size, well-sprung Norwegian model costing [pounds sterling]3,500 and which Carole herself advised them to buy - found Mrs Blair to be completely at ease with her friend's needs.
Indeed, until she was barred from No. 10 last September, in a vain attempt to publicly distance the Prime Minister from her, Carole Caplin seems to have had carte blanche to use the bed whenever she wanted.
'Sometimes, Cherie was in the room, sometimes not,' says a source. 'Carole would announce that she was tired and wanted a nap, and get into bed.
Cherie didn't seem to be bothered in the slightest that she was getting into the very bed she and Tony sleep in.
Tony, of course, was never in the bedroom when this happened.' Some might cynically interpret such boldness as the act of a woman with some rather strange hold over her friend Cherie. Others will see it as merely a symptom of their sisterly closeness and the confidence both have in each other.
In a far more controversial area, Foster was reported in the Daily Telegraph last week to be claiming that: 'Cherie Blair did not allow her youngest child, Leo, to have the controversial MMR vaccine and instead asked a New Age healer to wave a magic pendulum over him.' The healer, the paper reported, was Jack Temple, the former market gardener with no qualifications who died last month at the age of 86.
The Telegraph quoted Foster as saying that the Prime Minister 'allowed' his wife to take Leo to Mr Temple to be protected from mumps, measles and rubella. Temple offered various alternative therapies including crystal dowsing, Oriental medicine, Hebrew teaching, homeopathy and herbalism.
The Blairs, as every couple with young children must know by now, have always refused to disclose whether Leo, who will be four in May, has had the MMR jab.
But it is known that Cherie Blair was treated by Mr Temple for swollen ankles and has used a tonic made from strawberry leaves specially grown by him within a Neolithic-style stone circle where he claimed they absorbed cosmic powers.
We have now established that Leo met the late Jack Temple at least once, when toddler and his nanny paid an afternoon visit to the clinic of Temple (who had been introduced to Cherie by her friend Carole) in the summer of 2002. The Telegraph also reported Foster challenging the Prime Minister to admit that he allowed his wife to give Mr Temple some of his hair and nail clippings. Temple would keep such intimate clippings in jars at his healing centre in West Byfleet, Surrey, claiming that he only needed to swing his pendulum over the jar to ascertain if a person was healthy or ill.
Our sources say it is entirely possible that Blair's clippings were taken to the clinic without his knowledge.
As for the Prime Minister himself, Foster told the sober Independent on Sunday earlier this month that the influence Carole Caplin wielded over him was so great that 'she gives him advice on strategies for handling Gordon Brown and dresses him down to his boxer shorts'.
Putting the underwear to one side for the moment, and considering the allegation involving the Chancellor, it was in the prestigious American glossy magazine Vanity Fair that Foster described an alleged scene in which Blair, troubled by his 'parliamentary rival' Brown, would call Carole and she would say: 'I'll ask Mum to channel on this and ring you back.' 'Then she'd call back and say: "You must not confront him on this - now isn't the time,"' reported Foster.
Channelling is the spiritualist method that Carole's mother, Sylvia, uses to consult 'The Light', at her home in Dorking, Surrey, in a room where a shaft of light comes through a hole in the ceiling.
It is well known that Cherie Blair has been one of Sylvia's clients. On occasions, she has been known to fax up to 11 pages of questions for her to 'channel'. However, we have no idea what the questions were or what the problems were to which she sought answers.
Foster further claimed in the Daily Telegraph that both Cherie and Carole urged Tony Blair to consult 'The Light' to find out if it was 'safe' to go to war with Iraq.
Our sources say it would have been entirely in character for Sylvia Caplin to make heavenly inquiries about Iraq, and also about Gordon Brown, on her own account, but that Blair would have politely declined her advice.
On a more earthly level, Foster also claims that Carole advised Blair to make sure he always had another person in the room whenever he confronted his Chancellor.
True or false? Our sources believe it is 'entirely feasible' that Carole Caplin offered Blair advice on how to handle Gordon Brown, but that Blair himself would not have asked for it.
However, what we do know from sources close to Caplin is that friends are 'quite used to her speaking in a derogatory way about Gordon Brown', sometimes revealing information which suggests she has a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the Prime Minister's dealings with him.
Indeed, she has regaled some of her friends with colourful tales of heated exchanges in Downing Street which she herself witnessed.
Which leaves the question of those handpicked boxer shorts. It is no secret that Carole buys clothes for Mr Blair, including his ties, and that, in the past, he has consulted her as to which tie he should wear for specific occasions, including his speeches to Labour Party conferences.
But we have now established that, as Foster claims, when Caplin was in Australia in 2002 she went shopping at a store near her hotel in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge and she bought novelty boxer shorts as gifts for male friends. We do not know if the Prime Minister was among the recipients, but there is certainly no regular arrangement for her to buy his underwear.
Another of Foster's claims in the Independent on Sunday was that while he was dating Carole, Blair called her 'nearly every night'. This seems to be a wild exaggeration. Tony Blair has made regular telephone calls to Carole, one of them famously at around midnight while she was being filmed as the subject of a Cheriegate television documentary last year.
But the truth is that Blair was calling her about once a week until the end of 2003. His calls have been much less frequent since then. Carole would usually take them on her mobile and, if she was in company, would withdraw to hold the conversation in private.
The Blairs even phoned her from their holiday in Egypt to wish her a happy New Year in January.
And what of Foster's claim that Carole is 'in love' with Tony Blair, as he claimed in Vanity Fair? He has described an alleged telephone conversation between them, in which he alleges he heard his then girlfriend say: 'I want your body,' then rapidly correct herself to add: 'I mean when you get back to London you have got to get that weight off - I want your body in the gym.'
Only Caplin and Blair could verify if such conversation ever took place.
Carole Caplin is certainly known to enjoy being flirtatious.
But is it really likely that a highly securityconscious Prime Minister and a woman who has spent many years close to his seat of power would really be reckless enough to indulge in such blandishments on an open telephone line?
As for 'love', friends of Ms Caplin are used to her overstating the strength of friendships. 'She classes restaurateurs like Gordon Ramsay as "good friends" when she has merely dined in their establishments a couple of times,' one says.
Foster's pronouncements in various newspapers also include other allegations that he claims to be able to prove.
But he persistently fails to do so.
He insists, for example, that he and Tony Blair have met - a claim that officials at No. 10 Downing Street long ago dismissed as nonsense. Indeed, Foster claims he has a photograph of their meeting, taken in France five months before Cheriegate when he arrived to link up with Carole, who had been with the Blairs for two weeks.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Foster later said the photograph was on a computer disk which was stolen from the home of his lawyer, Sean Cousins.
But in the Sunday Times, he promised to produce the picture. Thus far, no one has glimpsed it.
But among all Foster's fantasy, there are telling examples of fact.
For example, just as he claimed in a lengthy interview in the Independent on Sunday, both Carole and her mother were, indeed, in the Prime Ministerial motorcade that swept the Blairs in triumph, on Tony's first day in power in 1997, from their home in Islington to No. 10 Downing Street - infuriating party luminaries who had to make their own way there.
One Labour source reveals: 'Carole and Sylvia Caplin accompanied the Blairs to the official parties on Election night and then stayed the night in their home in Islington. The next day, when Cherie was photographed answering the door in her nightie with her hair all over the place, Carole and her mother were in the house.
'When the motorcade took the Blairs to No. 10, the Caplins were in one of the other cars. They were in Downing Street just a matter of moments after the Blairs, and heaven knows how much time they have spent there since.'
Another of his claims - that Carole was allowed to borrow one of the Prime Minister's Special Branch protection officers to drive her Jeep 700 miles down to the South of France in 2002 so that she could use it on holiday - has since been confirmed by a Scotland Yard source. The officer was off-duty and made a 'private arrangement' with Ms Caplin.
Meanwhile, Peter Foster has hinted in Australian and British newspapers that there is more to come.
While he clearly knows things, his problem is that for the onetime fraudster Peter Foster the simple truth has never been enough.…