Silent witness no longer

LAST WEEK, Cherie Booth chaired a conference set up by the charity Childline. The final scene of the conference was a fine example of empty glitz and razzmatazz.

There was Esther Rantzen, in her salmon-pink skirt suit and huge grin; there was Hillary Clinton in her gold necklaces and blonde coiffure; there was welling music in the conference hall; there were two confused children being thrust forward with vast bouquets of flowers. And there was Cherie Booth, dutifully accepting her flowers and smiling to the hundreds of people in the hall as the cameras flashed.

The photographs of Cherie and Hillary that ran in the newspapers the next day showed a familiar image; the two "first ladies" looking stiff and dutiful, their lipsticked mouths set in wide smiles.

Only the week before we had been treated to an even more uncomfortable picture of Cherie Booth. That time, she was in Macedonia, visiting the refugee camps with Tony Blair, and she was caught doing what anyone probably would have done in her circumstances - crying. The commentators were, understandably, caustic. "Don't cry for me, Cherie Blair," said one broadsheet; a tabloid dubbed her "Princess Tony".

In the absence of any real role in Macedonia, just her presence, let alone her tears, looked out of place. Did she see herself as a Princess Diana, there to comfort the afflicted? Did she see herself as a Norma Major, there to support her husband? Did she see herself as a Bianca Jagger, there to raise the issue of human rights through a dose of glamour? Nobody could tell. Because, as so often, Cherie Booth's presence was a silent one.

In the media, Cherie Booth is generally silent. And so interpretations are loaded on to her body or her face rather than her words. Just as with Princess Diana, that other great silent actress of our era, a momentary gesture of Cherie Booth's, a smile, a tear, a dress, is made to bear outrageous weight.

So, Cherie Booth once wore a sari. "Mrs Blair has paid a great compliment to India," said the Indian High Commissioner. She once wore a hairy sweater. "It's an old-fashioned north London style," said the Daily Mail, "with your heart worn on the sleeve to show that you support Third World enterprise." She once wore a slightly off-key wrap around skirt. "Its message is easy enough to read," said the Mail again. "Here is someone who has her own ideas about things."

And over the last two years, Cherie Booth has learnt, amazingly quickly, the lesson that the press drums into her - elegance, not eloquence, is what they want. Her clothes have lost their quirkiness. Her gestures have become more controlled. She has made herself into a blank canvas.

And watching Cherie Booth through the photographs and the news footage, I was sure that I was tired of her. I was tired of her silent presence at her husband's side. I was tired of the pictures that showed them like a family advertising a building society - all smiling, the perfect couple and the perfect children. I was tired of the way she had fitted herself so closely to the needs of New Labour.

She seemed to have completely drowned out her own character in order to meet what the media and the party wanted her to be. If she hadn't existed, you felt that Alistair Campbell would have invented her out of Ronit Zilkha sample suits, gilt heart-shaped earrings and old copies of the Daily Mail.

But there is something else going on with Cherie Booth, that the glitz and props of her life as Tony Blair's wife actually serve to obscure, not to highlight. She is not only a working lawyer, she is a campaigner and an idealist.

And those ideals are now beginning to push her into overt dissent with the Government. At that Childline conference, Cherie Booth was the central figure in the silly razzmatazz that ended the conference, but that was really a distraction from what she did earlier in the day. Because earlier on she made an extraordinary speech in which she openly demanded a change in the new legislation that Jack Straw is pushing forward in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill.

"In our courts children's voices are not being heard," she said, in a surprisingly deep and gritty voice. "The new bill is a step in the right direction, but it could be improved. Everyone here agrees that the Pigott recommendations of 1989 are the right way forward. So what, 10 years on, is preventing them being implemented? I would like to see that message going back loudly and clearly to the Home Secretary."

The Pigott recommendations would make it mandatory for abused children to give their evidence to a court in private through a video link and an intermediary, without having to fear that they might have to confront their abuser or hostile lawyers.

Currently, the bill makes such a process available only at the discretion of the judge. Cherie Booth's recommendations would revolutionise the treatment of child abuse cases in Britain, and bring many more men to justice. This sudden expression of dissent from the Government line was a new course of action for Cherie Booth. It was the first time she had openly criticised her husband's government.

Yet in a way this moment was waiting to happen. It was only the latest and most startling expression of the life she leads that is utterly at odds with the blank face that we see in the media.

This other life that goes on day after day after day, and is no doubt a lot more real to Cherie Booth than her much-discussed trips to Ronit Zilkha and her appointments with Andre Suard at Michaeljohn. After her silent trip to the refugee camps in Macedonia, for instance, Cherie Booth went to Romania, where she met women lawyers and talked to them about the help that a new group that she has spearheaded, the Euro Woman Lawyers' Association, can give them in seeking equality.

And last weekend she was the most conspicuous figure at the Woman Lawyer Forum in London - not just because of her reflected glamour, but because of all the QCs and judges and professors who spoke, it was Cherie Booth who made the clearest and most compelling proposals for reforms that would benefit women.

She told the conference that lawyers needed to overhaul their own employment practices. But she also told them that they had to overhaul their professional work so that women could find justice in cases of domestic and sexual violence. "Some of us in the legal profession have often assumed that giving evidence has to be an ordeal," she said. "That witnesses have to be harassed, intimidated and broken down. That if we don't bully them we won't get at the truth. We should think again."

In saying these things Cherie Booth is not just voicing platitudes. She is throwing her weight behind the movement that hopes to revolutionise women's and children's access to justice.

At the moment child abusers and rapists almost invariably escape punishment, because the process is so weighted against the voices of abused women and children.

Reform is essential to create criminal justice system that allows the voices of such witnesses to be heard - through video links for children, or firmer guidelines on admissible lines of questioning for victims of sexual violence. In her championing of this cause Booth necessarily finds herself at loggerheads with the Government.

And no doubt she is quite well aware of all the other ways in which her husband's government is trampling on her ideals. She is no doubt aware that while she agitates for children's voices to be heard, this Government is stripping the protection of the Children Act from refugee children. She is no doubt aware that while she works as a trustee for Refuge, this Government is not putting any more money into the desperately underfunded hostels for women fleeing violence. What issue will be the next one that drives her to speak directly against Government policy?