August is a time of political doldrums, when Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family jet off on vacation, this year to the Caribbean island of Barbados. Back home, however, the Blairs are getting no political respite, and this time it appears to be the doing of the prime minister’s wife, Cherie, who, at least as Britain’s acerbic media describe it, appears to have let a modern-day Rasputin — in the form of a lithe fashion-cum-aerobics guru — have the run of 10 Downing Street.
For the beach-bound Blairs and their coterie of media advisers, the timing of a seven-page spread in Marie Claire magazine initially looked to be fortuitous. The prime minister held one last press conference on Friday just as “A day in the life of Cherie” hit the magazine stands, and on Saturday the family packed off to the sun-kissed Caribbean.
But then there was that one photo in Marie Claire, which had been granted rare access to the mother of four during a busy work day as she juggled domestic life, her flourishing legal career and her duties as the prime minister’s wife.
The black-and-white image, tucked into a flattering look at a modern-day working mother, showed Blair relaxing on the prime ministerial bed, while her “lifestyle guru,” Carole Caplin, applied lipstick to Blair’s puckered lips.
The August political doldrums, exacerbated by unusually searing heat in the capital, ended with a clamor from the British tabloids.
“Cherie, you’ve lost your marbles and your dignity,” wrote the Daily Mail. The paper’s reporter, Lynda Lee-Potter, asked the question many here have on their minds: “Why the hell did she do it?”
PRIVATE LIFE, PUBLIC ROLE
After she accompanied her husband to Downing Street in 1997, Cherie Blair’s first photograph as the new prime minister’s wife was warmly received. After all-night celebrations marking the Labor Party’s remarkable win, she answered the door of London’s most famous political address, rung by photographers, in her night gown with uncombed hair.
The 48-year-old Blair, one of the country’s top lawyers, has marked the six years since with a determination not to sacrifice her career and family life for the public role of prime minister’s wife.
Over the years that goal has pitted her against the country’s aggressive press, which on the one hand is quick to carry headlines of a courtroom win by Cherie Blair that challenges her husband’s policies, or affectionate articles about her surprise pregnancy, which resulted in Leo Blair, now 3, who became Downing Street’s first baby in decades.
On the other hand, Blair has shown a propensity for misjudging public opinion, which regularly brings her trouble in the press.
‘LIPPYGATE’ AND ‘CHERIEGATE’
“Lippygate,” the name the press is giving the latest Cherie Blair flap, follows “Cheriegate,” sparked when she accepted the help of a convicted con man, then the boyfriend of her close friend Caplin, in negotiating the purchase of two investment properties in Britain.
The scope of that scandal forced the prime minister’s media advisers to step in and order Cherie Blair to make a public apology for her actions.
It was the appearance of Caplin, a former topless model, in the Marie Claire photo spread that set the media upon Blair again, bolstered by the simultaneous publication of Caplin’s own flattering profile in the celebrity magazine “Hello!”
“My planning with Cherie doesn’t stop and start,” said Caplin, a self-styled fitness and fashion adviser. “It’s an ongoing process, and anything she might be wearing now was planned six months before.”
The suggestion, exacerbated up by Marie Claire’s photograph of the two perched together on Cherie and Tony Blair’s bed, was that Caplin was closer to the Blairs than ever before.
Although Caplin, 41, bears little resemblance to the unshaven Grigory Rasputin — the Siberian monk who Alexandra, the wife of Russia’s last czar, believed to have healing and political powers — she has been re-christened by the media as the Rasputin of Downing Street.
The close look at the private quarters of Downing Street has drawn criticism, with Blair accused of being hypocritical for guarding her private life but then inviting journalists — and a New Age adviser — into her boudoir.
“If she’d wanted to portray herself as Mrs. Average, this was a great mistake,” wrote the Daily Mail’s Lee-Potter. “In fact, most of us wouldn’t allow a photographer anywhere near our bedroom.”
Even Barbara Ellen, the journalist who accompanied Marie Claire’s photographer, said she was surprised when the prime minister’s wife beckoned the two into her bedroom, where Caplin was arranging clothes in the dressing room.
“Cherie is a 48-year-old woman with a brain the size of Manchester — it must have occurred to her that the Marie Claire piece would be an opportunity to revitalize her reputation … post-Cheriegate, in which the last thing she needed was for Caplin to feature in any way, never mind prominently,” Ellen wrote separately in the Observer newspaper.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is based in London.)