Marriage for the millennium: Power of the union in Downing St

Cherie Booth was an exceptional student with bags of ambition. The young Tony Blair may not have been as smart but he could match her for drive any day. They both wanted a career in the law. They both wanted to be MPs. They also wanted to have a family. Something had to give. Ann Treneman on Britain's First Couple.

It's a story that many couples today can relate to. How do you keep a marriage together with both partners working and all the pressure of child-care and lack of time? Who is going to go to the supermarket, cook dinner, earn the most money?

The answer, the experts say, lies in the art of communication and old- fashioned respect. It's the kind of thing that Tony Blair and Cherie Booth know about. In a country where four in 10 marriages fail, the success of the First Marriage has not gone unnoticed. "Young men and women can really relate to them as a couple," said Helen Wilkinson, author of a report on marriage last year for the think-tank Demos. "They are seen as kind of having it all. On a symbolic level I think they are hugely significant."

Their story begins in 1977, and romantics should note that it was not love at first sight. Last year the Blairs, in a rare interview as a couple, told the American television programme 60 Minutes how they met. "We were sort of sitting next to each other at something and discovered that, in fact, we were both pupils with the same barrister," said Tony. "Which didn't please me at all, because I had been assured I was going to be the only one," said Cherie. So, the interviewer said, were you rivals? "Hmmm, a little bit," said Cherie. "I suppose we could have been," said Tony.

Any couple hearing those answers would have to smile, not because of what was said but what was not said. Rivals? I should think so - both in career and in politics - but the wonder is that they have managed to transform their competition into co-operation. It hasn't been achieved without compromise.

Marriage may have been easier in the old days when wife and husband knew exactly what was expected of them. "When you don't have those roles there is much more room for conflict," says Penny Mansfield, of the charity One Plus One, which is conducting research on this subject for the Government. "Now couples have to make it up as they go along."

Tony and Cherie remained rival law students for almost a year. Then Cherie invited him to a Christmas party and they ended up playing a game that involved passing a balloon to each other through their legs. Suddenly, Tony saw his prickly and clever colleague in a different light. "The next day we went out to lunch and hours later we were still there," said Tony in an pre-election interview last year. "I found her immensely physically attractive and I wanted her as a friend as well."

Cherie was not so sure, but Tony Blair doesn't give up easily. "Once you succumb to Tony's charm," she has said. "you never really get over it." It was the biggest decision of her life.

They became engaged in 1979, during a holiday to Italy and married on 29 March 1980 at St John's College in Oxford. Like most couples now, they married relatively late (he was 26, she was 25). This trend has continued, with the average age of marriage going up over the past four years (now it is 27 for women, 29 for men) while the average first age of sexual intercourse has dropped four years to 17. And, also like most couples now, the Blairs have always been a dual career family. Somehow, they have made it work.

Many do not. These days, Penny Mansfield says, a satisfying marriage is not so much a romantic relationship as a partnership based on shared goals and respect. "The modern marriage requires three things," she says. "You've got to communicate effectively. You can't simply not say anything to each other and get on with your roles. Secondly, you've got to negotiate fairly. Each person must feel as if their needs have been regarded. Three, you need to manage conflict safely and you mustn't allow them to become personal and nasty."

For the Blairs, compromise began almost from the beginning. Early on, Cherie decided to quit competing directly with him for a tenancy in Lord Irvine's chambers and joined the chambers of libel lawyer George Carman instead. Tony Blair stayed put. Their next challenge would come in the political arena. Both were passionate about politics (she had joined the Labour Party aged 16 in 1970, he waited until 1975) and decided that each would try to get elected to Parliament. Then they are said to have made a deal: whoever made it first would continue in politics while the other supported the family. Both stood for election. Cherie almost lost her deposit in Thanet North. Tony won in Sedgefield in 1983.

Fifteen years later, the deal still stands. It has lasted through the births of three children and much more. Cherie Booth - as she is known by colleagues - has made her family well-off if not rich. There are signs, too, that there have been negotiations over his career, particularly in his decision not to contest the deputy leadership under John Smith. "When it came to whether or not he was going to run for the deputy leader's job, Euan said he was glad that Daddy has chosen to spend more time at home," Cherie told interviewer Barbara Amiel in 1992. "I think Tony is incredibly talented and I want him to succeed - he's got an incredible amount to offer - but we've got young children and they need to be protected."

John Smith's death in 1994 forced the decision that the Blairs had thought would wait until their children were grown. Tony Blair told an interviewer last year that he heard the news while driving along the Great Northern Road in Aberdeen. "I had to speak to Cherie before I made any decision. I got back to London as quickly as I could." In Islington, he and Cherie sat down and talked. "Cherie said, 'You didn't ask for this, you didn't plan it, but it's here and you've got to do it'," said Tony. "I said: 'Look outside the front door. There were journalist and photographers and camera crews. This is what we're going to expose the children to'."

In the end he listened to his wife, but he has stuck to his part of the bargain too. At a reception to mark her husband becoming leader, a local councillor noted that she would be giving up work if her husband became PM. "And can you tell me one good reason why I should?" she demanded. In 1995 she became a QC. "I would love to be a judge," she said. She is the first working mother to reside in Downing Street. "I'm full of admiration for Cherie. How she manages to do these cases and keep everything separate, I don't know," said Linda McDougall, author of Westminster Women and wife of Austin Mitchell MP.

We may never know much more about what makes the First Marriage tick although many, including Linda McDougall, enjoyed seeing a glimpse of the Blairs at home last month when a spoof caller to No 10 was told to just hang on a minute while Cherie went to fetch the Prime Minister. "I thought that was an interesting insight. It sounded fantastically normal," she said. "It's great that they really do have their breakfast together and worry about the athletic kit and the socks."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?