Cherie - middle England's new Queen of Hearts

She's the ideal modern woman - and she sells papers. Paul Mungo reports
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The Independent Online
There's a vacancy in Britain: for a photogenic, loving mother, a style-setter with a mission, and a role model for our times. After Diana, can anyone fit the bill? Or, more to the point for the media, can anyone boost sales as much? The Daily Mail thinks so. Step forward, Cherie Blair.

Unlikely as it may seem, the paper of record for Middle England is promoting the wife of a Labour Prime Minister both as a fashion leader and icon.

This week, the paper splashed pictures of Cherie Blair across the top of its front page two days running. Inside, a shot of the Prime Minister's wife cuddling Humphrey the Downing Street cat dominated a spread on "the famous and their pets" (despite the fact that Mrs Blair is known to be less than fond of cats).

On Wednesday, the paper's Hardcastle column gushed that Mrs Blair "grows in confidence and poise, wears stylish clothes and looks good". On Friday it reported that Cherie "is receiving more letters than Tony Blair got in Opposition" and needed another assistant to cope with the growing mailbag.

Then Hardcastle made plain the paper's own opinion.

"It might be stretching a point to describe Cherie as the new Diana," it burbled, "but she's making a lot of converts."

The Daily Mail will not comment publicly on Mrs Blair but according to one of its executives, the management believes that she can boost circulation - currently at 2.25m - because she has captured what they call "the zeitgeist of the time". The Prime Minister's wife is brought up "constantly" at editorial conferences, he said, and her image is used throughout the paper.

"Cherie's seen as fireproof," said another Mail source. "It's not possible to do a job on her. She's a successful middle-class woman with a family; everything the Daily Mail stands for. She's the sort of person readers aspire to be."

The first many people saw of Cherie Booth was a woman with a spiky haircut and a rather dowdy suit clinging to her husband's arm after his election as party leader. But just as happened after Diana appeared gawkily on her fiance's arm for their engagement photos, a startling transformation was to come.

Unlike her American counterpart Hillary Clinton, Ms Booth alias Mrs Blair has never been vilified for her ambition. She has always been respected for her successful legal career. Add to that her showbiz connection (via her actor father Tony Booth), her triumph over adversity (the break-up of her parents' marriage) and her makeover, and the newspaper executives knew they had found a winner.

Other newspapers, particularly the Times, are also keen, if not to the same degree. Yet there is still an ambivalence within the Mail as to how it deals with Labour in government.

"We got the election terribly wrong. Now the editors don't know how to pitch it," said a Mail executive. Soon after the election, the paper ran a leader lauding the "robust" Tony Blair, followed by another praising Robin Cook.

On the other hand, the Mail reported the defection of its proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to Labour in three paragraphs on page 12. It was left to the paper's Associated Newspapers stablemate, the London Evening Standard, which had supported Blair in the election, to give the announcement due prominence. Lord Rothermere's support for Labour has left the Mail adrift. He is "fiercely anti-socialist and pro-capitalist" - but so is New Labour. "The ideological raison d'etre for the Tory press's ferocious and historic bias against Labour no longer exists," Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, has argued.

The confusion at the Mail as to how to handle the Prime Minister's wife is exemplified in its stories on the lesbian couple who successfully sued in the European Court for discrimination over travel rights for homosexual partners. Though Ms Booth represented the couple, the Mail's coverage of her role was curiously muted.

How long can it last? One Cabinet minister said last week that the Mail and its editor Paul Dacre are unlikely to continue their love affair with Mrs Blair. The paper's obsession may be embarrassing, sometimes irritating, but being knocked off the pedestal, said the minister, will be far worse.