Media: Meet the new Cherie, the glowing, radiant darling of the Tory press

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There was a time when the Conservative press in Britain knew exactly what they thought of Cherie Booth. She didn't quite do. The targets of their disapproval started with her appearance: shiny tights, patterned sweaters, pixie boots, a glimpse of cellulite. Every sartorial slip was noted and added up against her. Similarly, her attitudes and her career were dissected with unease. Even if she remained silent, volumes could be deduced from her behaviour.

On 7 November 1997, for instance, the Daily Mail gave her a dressing down for dressing down in the presence of the Queen. Was she revealing a hitherto latent republicanism? "When Cherie Blair met the Queen, the Prime Minister's wife apparently made not one faux pas, but two. First, she is said to have worn trousers - albeit smart - for the royal audience. Second, she reportedly failed to curtsy to her sovereign, `mortifying' the Queen Mother." A few weeks later the same newspaper looked at the cases that she had been working on, and reported that she was taking on "politically correct" cases that were costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds.

Given Cherie Booth's immense care never to open her mouth or to put a foot out of place, the Mail and the Telegraph could never really weigh in against her as they did years ago against Glenys Kinnock. But they were never going to give her an easy time, and that was seen right up to the announcement of her pregnancy. Just a few days earlier the right- wing newspapers had been revelling in a story that reflected badly on her. Something that Alastair Campbell had let slip about how the Blairs never felt very rich because of the amount of money they had to spend on clothes for all sorts of smart occasions was translated into the idea that Cherie Booth wanted a dress allowance.

The bitching was not confined to the Tory press, by any means, but the Daily Mail went to town, with a double-page spread showing how much she had spent on various outfits and advice on how she could economise. The implication was clear: even though Cherie Booth had made every effort to please them, they weren't happy.

But on Thursday 18 November, everything changed. When news of the pregnancy hit the air, journalists at the Mail and the Telegraph had a sudden conversion. They no longer saw Cherie Booth, the clever lawyer with a penchant for trouser suits and political correctness. Cherie Blair, the perfect wife and mother, had taken her place. And all of a sudden the newspapers who had found so much to carp about gave up acres of space to showing us how much they adored her.

On Friday their front pages were covered with huge pictures of a smiling Cherie Booth. "The Blairs have stressed the importance, both personally and for Britain, of a sound family environment," said the Telegraph journalist, also noting with pleasure that "Mrs Blair has already scaled down her work as a barrister to take account of her role as the prime minister's wife, but she will soon have to tone down her professional life even further."

And the day after the same paper ran a front-page picture of Cherie and Tony in front of No 10, with the kind of drooling copy the Blairs had never been able to command before. "A radiant Cherie Blair," the piece began, and went on to mention that "Mr Blair put a protective arm around his wife's shoulders".

The following Monday Cherie's picture finally left the front page, but it dominated an inside page of the Telegraph. At the summit lunch on the Third Way, a fellow guest was quoted saying, "Cherie looked lovely. She was wearing a white woollen dress. Everyone was remarking on how pretty she looked. The general feeling towards her was very good."

On Tuesday she was back on the front page, this time posing with Darcey Bussell at the Royal Opera House and sharing "a few personal details" with the press about the baby clothes and flowers that were "flooding" into Downing Street.

Aside from the news stories, the Times, Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and the Mail lined up their columnists to pat Cherie on the back. Libby Purves, Cassandra Jardine, Alice Thomson, Vicki Woods and others gave their congratulations and sisterly advice to Cherie Blair. "I lie awake at night worrying about the wisdom of having a last baby in my mid-forties," said one. "I have a new respect for Cherie. I am 13 weeks pregnant too, and am exhausted just brushing my teeth," said another. "As Cherie must already know, there is nothing that makes Christmas quite so perfect as being pregnant," said yet another. "Go, Cherie go! A glorious, gleeful, irrational buzz ran through the freemasonry of women with nearly-grown families!" said yet another.

Why are the Telegraph and the Mail suddenly on Cherie's side? Because this is the image of womanhood that deep down, they all like best. Their journalists still seem to believe that, sure, women might work, and be rather good at it, and earn a lot of money, and command a lot of respect, but really, what every woman wants is to be a mother: not just to bear and bring up children, but to define themselves predominantly through their families.

Naturally, it's quite hard to dissent from the general glow that is surrounding Cherie Booth. After all, motherhood is not only the most common thread that knits women together, it is also a mysterious and exciting process, and it is also bloody hard, undervalued work.

It's fair to be impressed by Cherie Booth for going through with a fourth pregnancy at the age of 45. But there is something rather galling about the way this clever, stoical woman could never get women journalists wholly on her side until they could frame her in a context that said baby clothes and maternity frocks and a protective arm from her husband, rather than smart trouser suits and trumping the other side in court. Having unprotected sex has turned out to be the most admirable thing Cherie Booth has ever done.

There is still a strong element in the press - seen most clearly in the Tory press - that would rather keep women in traditional roles and will quickly sneer at them as soon as they step out of line. Now that Cherie Booth has got back into the traditional womanly scheme of things, their barbs are being directed at Ffion, whose independence is already being scorned. She was fingered as a "feminist" by Vicki Woods in The Sunday Telegraph last week.

That matters, because it has an effect on young women reading their newspapers every day as they go to work. Somehow it is still being suggested to them that as long as they try to be independent, other women will put them down; they will be told they look like a "frightened hamster", that their suits are "dowdy and bulge in the wrong places", that their smile is "a rictus of forced jollity". But as soon as they become pregnant, they will be "radiant" and "lovely" and everyone will line up to be their friends.

I'm not saying that we should weigh in against Cherie Booth now. On the contrary, let's give the woman a break. But I think we should look at why she got so much flak in the past, and why that suddenly stopped. Will women ever learn to respect one another for the work they do and the successes they have, apart from bearing children?