Cherie, 'fully booked until May', fends off the Cheltenham awkward squad

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The Independent Culture

Cherie Blair's first public discussion about her book on life as a prime minister's spouse, at Cheltenham Literary Festival yesterday, passed off with only one brief but awkward moment of confrontation.

The audience in the Pillar Room at Cheltenham Town Hall had listened politely to Mrs Blair and Cate Haste, co-author of The Goldfish Bowl: Married to the Prime Minister for 45 minutes, when one frustrated guest broke ranks. Lorraine Nicholls, a pharmacist's wife from Gloucester, felt the anecdotes, which covered various aspects of being the Prime Minister's other half including press intrusion, the failings of No 10's plumbing and the fact that Downing Street did not come with its own servants, were rather self-pitying.

She said to Mrs Blair: "The tone [of the book] seems to be one in which you are supposed to feel sorry for all the spouses, sorry they have to take on the media ... but presumably you and Tony Blair worked very hard to get where you are. You are in a privileged position. In some ways you are abusing your privileges.''

Mrs Blair, dressed in an aubergine trouser suit and satin boots, seemed only momentarily surprised at the broadside. "I certainly agree with you, in that you volunteer for this position. No one forces you to do it. I do not think any of the spouses would want to be pitied. The reason I wrote the book is so it would provide a fascinating insight into what goes on in Downing Street as very little has been written about the personal lives of those who lived there,'' she responded.

But Mrs Blair, who has remained guarded throughout all interviews she has given in connection with the book, did give the audience one unexpected insight - the possible date of the next general election. The Prime Minister's wife said that the charity nights which she hosts at Downing Street were "fully booked" until May 2005. She then hesitated and, realising what she might have implied, added "perhaps it's March".

Mrs Blair, who was in conversation with Christopher Cook, the festival's director, had confirmed she would be attending the festival only 12 days ago. Around 300 guests had their bags searched before entry and security was tight with police and plain-clothes officers stationed outside and on the roof of the building. However, it was later discovered that some guests had managed to enter the hall through an alternative entrance without being searched by police.

Mrs Blair, appearing relaxed in front of her audience, spoke of her divided duties as a barrister, mother, charity worker, and wife - but largely deflected attention away from her own personal experience at No 10.

When asked by an audience member what legacy the Blairs had left at Downing Street, she laughed nervously, calling the question "a bit premature''. However, she added that they had got football posts erected at Chequers for the children, redecorated No 10's state rooms (although they could only pick from two shades of a similar colour chosen by a committee) and had a shower installed.

The book traces the private lives of seven prime ministerial spouses - Clarissa Eden, Dorothy Macmillan, Elizabeth Home, Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher and Norma Major - from 1955 to 1997. Mrs Blair was reluctant to reveal whether any sequel would recount her own experience. ("I don't know about that right now,'' she said.)

The work was inspired by a dinner for the Queen's Jubilee which had been attended by all living former prime ministers and their spouses. To collate their material, the two authors interviewed more than 80 friends and relatives as well as surviving prime ministers and their spouses. Haste said: "Although quite a lot is known about a prime minister, very little is known about the prime minister's spouse. We thought it could be a challenge to unearth and excavate these experiences.''

Mentioning each spouse on first-name terms, Mrs Blair spoke fondly of Denis and Norma, describing Mr Thatcher's need to "escape'' the cramped family space above the office at No 10. She also related how Mrs Thatcher had to rely on frozen lasagne and shepherd's pie from Chequers because Downing Street had no kitchen staff. The one-hour discussion ended with a book-signing at which the authors laughed with guests who had formed a long, snaking queue. Julia Kitching, 43, from Cheltenham, said: "I really only came here because I've seen her before at a charity event in Downing Street. She was in her tracksuit then with the children. I enjoyed the discussion but she didn't talk at all about herself, did she?''

* The Independent will feature reviews from the Cheltenham Literary Festival every day until next Saturday.