No 10 lets a very famous cat out of the bag...

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IT WAS one of the grubbiest episodes of Tony Blair's reign in Downing Street, shrouded in spin and secrecy for almost eight years.

But now, finally, the cat is out of the bag: the merciless Downing Street spin machine forced an old and infirm tabby out of retirement to parade before the nation's press - simply to prove that New Labour's henchmen had not killed him off.

Confidential documents detailing the life and times of Humphrey, the Downing Street cat, offer a revealing insight into one of the most mysterious inhabitants of Number 10 in recent years - and his unrivalled popularity in the country at large.

But, among the scores of fan letters, requests for photos and interviews contained in the 121-page dossier released under Freedom of Information legislation, there emerges a darker picture of his fortunes towards the end of his eight years in the service of the government.

In November 1997, amid rumours that Cherie Blair had taken a dislike to the black and white cat who came with her new home in Downing Street, the decision was taken to pension him off, with the excuse that he was "too old and unwell" to carry on living on the Whitehall estate.

A secret departmental memo warned the government that the redundancy would be such a big story that 11-year-old Humphrey's demise should be rigidly controlled and only revealed after he had left the building for the last time.

"In this way we can avoid would-be cat-nappers and requests from people who would like to give him a home," one news manager declared. "There will be press demand for a final photocall, but the cat is too old and ill to oblige." Then, in an indication of the government's true priorities, he added: "An official announcement... would give him an appropriate send-off and avoid any diary stories of rifts with ministers."

The dossier is noticeably light on details of Mrs Blair's true feelings towards the cat, but what the state is willing to release on Humphrey's life makes fascinating reading - and perhaps says more about the pampered cat's guardians and well-wishers than it does about him.