When two Welsh mothers, Suzanne Tucker and Julie Lock, were trying to decide whether children should be immunised against mumps, measles and rubella by using the controversial triple vaccine MMR, they wondered who they should turn to. Suzanne's daughter Ruby was due to have her triple jab, but Julie's son Oliver, who had been vaccinated, had developed autism. They decided to consult Cherie Blair, because, as Mrs Tucker puts it, they see her "as a role model, a kind of first mother for Britain".
In the absence of any front-line female role models in the Royal Family, Cherie is indeed becoming a 21st-century version of Diana, Princess of Wales. Ordinary British women identify with her. She works hard just like they do. She has a job and a family to care for. She's thoughtful, religious, clever and successful in her own right and has four happy and healthy kids. She's married to the most popular Prime Minister in 40 years and has access to the Ministry of Defence when her kids get a bit stuck with their homework. Who better to consult on a worrying issue such as the safety of the MMR triple vaccine?
But last week Cherie resolutely rejected the offer to become "Britain's First Mother" and guide to the nation. She turned away in silence because she realises that this is one battle in which she can be only a loser. She is insistent about defending the privacy of her family except at election time.
If baby Leo, aged 18 months, has had the MMR jab, Cherie might well be accused of using her child to promote the Government's policies in a re-run of the time during the mad cow crisis when John Gummer's daughter, Cordelia, was seen eating a "safe" beefburger. But if baby Leo turns out not to have been vaccinated using the triple jab, it could lead to another furore: that policies advocated as good for the nation are not good for the Prime Minister's own family.
Downing Street explains her silence on the issue by stating that Leo had the same right to medical privacy as any other child. But last week journalists were not about to let Cherie off the hook. Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail, who has an autistic child himself, wrote that there was no doubt Cherie was "happy to use her position and influence for the sort of politically correct causes that appeal to her well-honed sense of justice. Meanwhile, she declines to confront one of the most emotionally draining issues facing modern parents."
Cherie, of course, used to be silent most of the time. When her husband became Prime Minister in 1997, Cherie Booth QC was perceived as a spouse devoted and loyal to her husband, but ferociously protecting her family's privacy and therefore her own. All this while maintaining a demanding and highly successful career. Her children have become a handy shield and an explanation for her silence on every question of significance.
Yet a different sort of Cherie has emerged in the last year or so – one who has an intriguing and complex public face. We have become privy to all kinds of information about her: she indulges in downright kooky therapies, wearing an acupuncture earring to beat stress, a crystal pendant to promote calm, and plastic hip-reducing therapy pants – sometimes all at the same time. She is a client of the ayurvedic therapist Bhati Vyas and recently opened Vyas's new clinic. She is said to have consulted a veteran body dowser, Jack Temple, before the birth of Leo.
Letting the public know these titbits has worked wonders, for it suggests that the châtelaine of No 10 is a woman absolutely in tune with the interests of so many others across the land. Alternative therapies, along with mysticism and astrology, have never been more popular.
The Blair family has meanwhile strayed into the limelight in a way which suggests careful thinking about how to play the political image game. All politicians know the distinct electoral advantage of promoting their family life, and the Blairs are no exception. On election day this year, for instance, Tony and Cherie and their three teenage children sauntered across a green meadow on their way to the polling booth (only Tony and Cherie were eligible to vote of course) and Cherie could be heard instructing her kids to smile for the cameras.
In my recent biography of Cherie, I examined her rapidly developing importance as a role model and tried to encourage her to abandon her silent witness role. The difficulty is that she has no real official role, unlike the wife of the American president. The difference in roles was highlighted recently when Cherie agreed to follow in the footsteps of Laura Bush and make a public plea for help and understanding for the women of Afghanistan. While Mrs Bush appeared alone in her official position as First Lady, Cherie's unofficial role made it much more difficult for her. Cherie appeared at Downing Street attended by a couple of female secretaries of state looking more like society wedding bridesmaids than government ministers. In this peculiar set-up Cherie made the unfortunate but understandable mistake of referring to herself a couple of times as a member of the Government. It was a field day for journalists, who suggested she was interfering in politics and trying to put a soft glove over the Government's policies.
But there is a role for Mrs Blair. She is admired and looked up to by women who want her to be an honest and independent voice. It's not only journalists but parents across the land who want to hear her views on MMR. They know that she is well informed and a devoted mother. They know that she is close to the centre of power. Cherie has got where she is in part because of the clever and careful self-promotion of the past few years. Now it's pay-back time. Of course, there will be a furore as both sides try to take advantage of her views, whatever they are. But she owes it to all of us to speak out.
'Cherie: The Perfect Life of Mrs Blair' by Linda McDougall is published in hardback by Politico's at £17.99.Reuse content