The comments by the Prime Minister's wife, a top barrister and part-time judge, were immediately seized upon by opposition MPs who issued a reminder that her husband's government had introduced fees for university tuition as one of its first acts after coming into power in 1997.
They come at a time when Tony Blair is facing increasing opposition from within his own party over a whole host of policies - including school and hospital reforms and new anti-terrorist legislation.
Mrs Blair says in this month's edition of the barristers' magazine Counsel: "The truth is if I hadn't had the funding from the state to go to university I would have worked in a shop." She describes in the magazine how she had been the first person from her family to go to university. Later she received a local authority grant to study for her Bar course and received a scholarship from Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns of Court.
The Government introduced tuition fees of £1,100 a year in 1998 and is now allowing universities to introduce top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from next September. That decision, made in spite of a manifesto pledge not to introduce tuition fees in the "lifetime of this parliament", led to one of the biggest backbench revolts by Labour MPs in recent times. At one stage it only squeezed through the Commons by two votes despite a healthy Labour majority of more than 150.
Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said of her comments: "I warmly applaud Cherie Blair's recognition that a free university education was vital for her and, by implication, vital for tens of thousands like her.
"It's a terrible tragedy that her husband has decided to pull up the ladder of opportunity behind him." He added: "The Prime Minister seems to be an ever more isolated figure. It is no longer just his cabinet colleagues and Labour backbenchers who are increasingly critical of this Government's policies, the growing sense of disillusionment is also clearly felt by his wife."
Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Like many people of her generation, Cherie Blair had the chance to access education and change her life because of a free and fully-funded education system.
"Tony Blair, Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly and their colleagues in Cabinet have all benefited from a university education but now they have pulled the ladder up for others. How many potentially brilliant human rights lawyers will never enjoy a successful career like Cherie Blair's as a result of these regrettable policies?"
Last night it was being claimed by government sources that the principle of a free university education had been breached by the previous Conservative government when it introduced student loans in the early 1990s. It was also being emphasised that students from poorer homes were being exempted from the new top-up fees regime - and they would only have to make repayments once they were earning £15,000 a year. Almost all universities have said they plan to introduce the maximum £3,000-a-year fee from next September. Many are planning to lobby ministers to lift the £3,000 ceiling in future so that they can charge more.
Troubled times of Mrs Blair
By Sarah Cassidy
* JANUARY 2000
Cherie Blair was fined £10 for travelling on a train without a ticket. She was going to Luton to attend Crown Court for her first day as a Recorder. The ticket office was closed and she did not have the right change for a machine.
* JUNE 2002
Mrs Blair apologised after she appeared to sympathise with suicide bombers. She said that young Palestinians feel they have got "no hope but to blow themselves up".
* DECEMBER 2002
Mrs Blair let Peter Foster, a convicted conman who was dating her lifestyle guru, Carole Caplin, to negotiate for her when she bought two flats. She telephoned solicitors representing Foster in his deportation case, but insists she did not intervene. She apologised, saying: "I'm not superwoman."
* APRIL 2003
She helped herself to 68 items in a Melbourne store after being invited to take a few items. She repaid the £2,000 value.
She was photographed having lip-liner applied by Ms Caplin on the prime ministerial bed for a magazine. Ms Caplin has been dropped from her staff.
She accepted $30,000 for a 90-minute talk in the US while her husband was talking to President Bush about cancelling African debt and increasing aid.
On a charity speaking tour of Australia, she was paid £17,000 to speak at a dinner which only raised £6,770 for the charity.Reuse content