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."

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
Ricky Gervais performs stand-up
people
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

    Year 5 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

    Year 6 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

    Automation Test Lead (C#, Selenium, SQL, XML, Web-Services)

    £50000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Automation Tes...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering