02/15/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
IT'S NOT AS IF BRITISH PRIME MINISTER John Major needed more problems. His government is already beleaguered by recession and continuing difficulties with the European Community. Now Major finds himself in a personal predicament distressingly similar to that of the royal family's. But he is not simply and silently turning the other cheek. Indeed, Major has counterattacked with libel suits against two magazines that reported rumors that he had an affair with a caterer.
Late last month the left-wing weekly New Statesman & Society followed a little-known satiric publication called Scallywag with a story about an alleged affair between Major, 49, and Clare Latimer, 41, owner of an upscale catering firm that often handles receptions and parties at the P.M.'s official residence, 10 Downing Street. Prurient British speculation, seemingly based on gossamer, had long held that Major's 23-year-old marriage was in trouble. The Prime Minister's wife Norma, 50, it seems, rarely if ever stays at No. 10. Even alter stale dinners and official functions that end well past midnight, she returns to the family residence in Cambridgeshire (the couple have two grown children). And, it has often been sagaciously noted by insiders, she has appeared tense and unhappy in public.
At the same time, Latimer, who has been described as "cuddly," "attractive" and "sexy" by the British tabloids, has made an easy target for infidelity theorists. Her catering business—traditional English food that is highly popular with politicians—means she comes and goes at No. 10 at all hours of the day and night. Major, she once said in an interview, "doesn't want me to serve up trendy dishes such as sun-dried tomatoes. He has to eat that type of food in restaurants all the time."
In a short profile about her in the London Sunday Times several months ago, Latimer said her late hours were the reason she never married. The daughter of character actor Hugh Latimer, Clare lives alone with her dog, Tansy. She also said she is often the target of whispers and innuendo. The caterer noted that while Major sometimes came down to the Downing Street kitchen to thank her for her work on parties, more often it was his wife who came to express her gratitude. "Being a single woman frequently working for men does invite speculation," said Latimer, "but that's just tedious."
Tedium was not the intent of the New Statesman. Its story, disingenuously billed as an investigation of how rumors gel started, was distributed to members of the House of Commons the afternoon before publication. The piece was also faxed by aides to Major, who was on an official tour of India and the Middle East. When shown the story, the Prime Minister, who was in Bombay, immediately huddled with his aides for an hour and a half to decide on a course of action. He also called Norma at home in Britain. The usually unflappable leader then angrily told the traveling press corps that the allegations were "completely untrue." He filed libel suits the same day. Latimer quickly did the next.
Major's suits were viewed as risky strategy by some, since the Prime Minister could someday find himself having to testify about his personal life in court. The writs, however, do put an immediate blanket on further reporting, as they have in the past when they were used by the likes of the late media baron Robert Maxwell, who filed them routinely to silence press reports about the doings of his now defunct empire.
Remarkably, even the New Statesman admits it has no evidence of a prime ministerial dalliance. In fact, the media, more than Major, came in for a bashing after the so-called revelations. The struggling New Statesman was almost surely looking for a quick circulation boost. "I hope John Major takes them to the cleaners," said conservative Member of Parliament Teresa Gorman, who seemed to reflect the prevailing opinion. "Paying out large sums of money is the only thing the newspapers understand."
The magazine last week stopped short of a formal apology but did offer an expression of regret. Lawyers for the publication said the article was "never intended to assert that an affair, let alone an adulterous relationship, had ever taken place between Mr. Major and Miss Latimer." Scallywag's editor and publisher, Simon Regan, was unrepentant, however. He warned that he had "an ace in the pack" and that more revelations would be forthcoming.
HELEN GIBSON in London