Cherie Booth: Now you see her, now you don't

Human rights advocate, Prime Minister's wife, mother, judge in waiting - and, according to one Tory critic last week, political meddler. Julia Langdon on a woman of many parts
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The Independent Online

In front of an audience of academics in Downing Street last year, the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair - standing in unexpectedly for her husband who had been obliged to dash off and run the country - observed with a degree of detached ironic amusement that she personally identified with a social condition relating to the role of women in society known as the Allerednic syndrome, which had earlier been described to those present. She is a funny woman with a good sense of timing, such as is required of barristers, and no doubt a ripple of sympathetic laughter ran through the room at this remark.

In front of an audience of academics in Downing Street last year, the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair - standing in unexpectedly for her husband who had been obliged to dash off and run the country - observed with a degree of detached ironic amusement that she personally identified with a social condition relating to the role of women in society known as the Allerednic syndrome, which had earlier been described to those present. She is a funny woman with a good sense of timing, such as is required of barristers, and no doubt a ripple of sympathetic laughter ran through the room at this remark.

An Allerednic is a social phenomenon identified by Professor Jonathan Gershuny of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. An Allerednic is a Cinderella in reverse. The term describes the circumstances where a man marries a clever, successful, achieving woman and in so doing rips the glass slipper from her foot, condemning her thereafter to a life of kitchen drudgery and child-rearing.

Mrs Blair - Cherie Booth QC - is not, of course, a classic Allerednic. She is not obliged to be a drudge, she has not been forced to give up work and there are - possibly - worse fates than being obliged to raise your children in Downing Street. Her remark was made, however, a few months before she became pregnant with her fourth child, baby Leo, whose arrival would necessarily complicate her demanding life even further. It is easy to sympathise with this woman and her two - or 22 - different lives.

She is both the successful professional and the supportive wife and mother. But she is also, of course, much more than that. She is not just any old clever-clogs lawyer who runs a family and has constantly to separate her briefs from the family washing. She is a QC who wants to be a judge. She is establishing a new set of chambers in order to specialise in human-rights legislation and deal with the litigation that is inevitable when the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into British law on 2 October. She is a barrister at the very top of her profession, earning a fortune and hugely in demand. All that and the mother of four who happens to be married to the Prime Minister.

So it is easy to imagine her exasperation at finding herself in the public spotlight last week on two counts. At the mundane level she had to endure the annual family holiday photo call in Tuscany, trying cheerfully to play the wife and mother, smiling through gritted teeth despite her detestation of the media and all the demands they have made on her and her family since she was obliged to move with them into public life.

Yet by far the greater irritation must have been the attacks upon her at the more worldly level prompted by her espousal of the human-rights agenda. For this alleged offence, which was in reality merely Ms Booth pursuing her career as a lawyer in what looks like an effective and well-planned manner, she found herself ludicrously derided by an upstart young Tory whipper-snapper as some sort of cross between Hillary Clinton and Lady Macbeth. For one reason or another, she has already been linked with both in the past - particularly with her friend Hillary Clinton, obviously because they are both capable, politically motivated lawyers married to high-achieving politicians - but never previously with both at the same time. Even for Ms Booth, even on holiday, it was a wearisome week.

And it could all have been so different. It could have been the Right Honourable Cherie Booth MP, a distinguished member of the Labour Party, a front-bench spokeswoman on, perhaps, some issue of social policy in keeping with her highly developed social conscience - or possibly even Cherie Booth the first woman Attorney General. Newspaper profiles might well have detailed how Ms Booth was out earning the money while her husband Tony Blair, the bright young QC and possible future judge, dashed home at teatime to cook the children his favourite recipe of pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, a culinary delight he once shared (in the interests of charity, of course ) with the Islington Cookbook. Yet would it really have been that different ? Isn't the reality that, because of her childhood, because of her parents, however she lived her life, Cherie Booth was going to be a complex, driven woman?

As so often, it comes back to childhood, as defined by Philip Larkin in that poem about what your parents do to you. Cherie Booth had a profoundly difficult childhood - but hey, she survived, she made good. Education, education, education - the catchphrase of the Blair administration had a real meaning in her household as a child as it does now upstairs, above the office in Downing Street. It was education that delivered her from the hard times her family endured. The eldest of seven daughters of the wayward actor Tony Booth, she grew up in Liverpool with her strong, independent mother, Gale, and her younger sister, Lyndsey, recognising that she had to help fend for herself and for all of them. Tony Booth left home when she was seven years old and her younger sister was five. Education was the only route out. There was no money. Education was all there was.

When Mr Blair is challenged privately by Labour friends about his middle-class background, his private school, his privileges, he sometimes responds by citing his wife's childhood in his defence: he does understand, he will say, because he knows how much she went through, how hard it was for her.

She passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school. She was clever, exceptionally so, but she also worked hard. She left with four grade As at A-level and got into the London School of Economics. She gained a first-class degree and then passed out top of the Bar exams in 1976. There are numerous accounts of her first meeting with Tony Blair under the auspices of Derry Irvine, now the Lord Chancellor, but one rather charming version has it that they were lined up in alphabetical order seeking their pupillages. By such an accident of fate her future was sealed. They married in 1980.

It wasn't clear then which of the couple would make their career in politics. Cherie sought - unsuccessfully - to stand for the Labour Party in Crosby in succession to Shirley Williams in 1982 and contested the safe Tory seat of Thanet North in 1983. Of the two of them it was she who had the political edge in the early days of their marriage. It was her husband's successful election at Sedgefield, however, that made up their minds. From that point onwards she concentrated on her legal work and, as ever, she worked hard and did well. She has become one of the most experienced barristers in the field of law as it affects employment and discrimination, and the move to establish a new set of chambers to deal with human rights was a natural progression. She is admired and respected as a professional. She is confident and competent.

In 1994 the base structure of her world shifted. She had always been her own woman, but now she was the wife of the leader of the Opposition, someone who owed her status to her husband's job. She was as ambitious for her husband in politics, as she was for herself in the legal profession. She wanted him to win. She had wanted him to stand as deputy leader of the Labour Party two years previously. She had a vision of how the political world could be better organised and she had distinctive views - so much so that it has often been suggested that she is the more committed left-wing politician.

That is not the case. She is the more instinctive politician, probably because of her childhood, but she has always shared Mr Blair's view of the need to make the Labour Party electable, to move it forward and make its policies appear more accessible by whatever means was most practical. She accepted the ideology, such as it is, of "new Labour", and has always been fiercely defensive of it. She is a political realist.

But even a political realist could never be prepared for the exposure to which the wife of the Prime Minister is subjected in this media-conscious milieu. A decision was taken by the spin directorate, some time before the 1997 general election, that Cherie would not give interviews nor adopt a political profile. She has stuck to the first. Most people in Britain have never heard her speak, although she is a fluent and effective public speaker whose legal training enables her to address large audiences without notes in a witty and engaging manner. She has found it impossible, however, to avoid the second.

Everything about her is cross-examined, as if she herself was an exhibit in one of her court cases: her clothes, her hair, her taste in jewellery. One critical article last week was even posited on the single fact that she chose to wear a silver pendant round her neck, a decision held to be inappropriate for a woman of her age. It would be enough to make the strongest woman weep. She was once described as a jumpers-and-slacks sort of person who didn't care about clothes, who thought there were more important things and who was intelligent enough not to care. She has learnt that it matters how she looks and she has taken care to make sure that she looks the part. She may joke about being an Allerednic, but she minds very much that she should not be mistaken for one.

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