Soberly dressed for politically incorrect brief

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It had at least some of the trappings of a John Grisham courtroom drama. On one side was an Asian teacher, and on the other was the unlikely celebrity defender of Berkshire's Education Authority, which is accused of racism.

The star of the industrial tribunal in Reading yesterday was not the client, Kanagarajah Vigneswaren, the unassuming grey-haired teacher at the centre of the case. It was Cherie Blair QC, wife of the Labour leader, who sat surrounded by notes and a pile of tissues, tending a pending cold.

Mrs Blair, named professionally as Ms Booth, had forsaken the newly acquired glamorous designer image of her public life. Instead she wore a long, woollen suit with gold buttons and flat boots for the politically incorrect brief.

She was defending the decision of the authority to bring a white headmaster out of retirement, rather than give the job of head of a troubled primary school to Dr V, as he was referred to during the hearing.

According to Rudy Narayan, her controversial foe as Dr V's representative, the mood between them was civil. He said: "She's very professional, we haven't had a cross word. There has been no hot-blooded exchanges."

But there was a theatrical quality in their different styles. Mr Narayan, with his dark glasses, bouffant hair and flamboyant manner contrasted starkly with the clipped and controlled approach of Ms Booth, whose fierce attention to detail would light up her huge eyes.

Ms Booth, who recently advocated extending the powers of race and equality tribunals, claimed the authority had nothing to answer for. She said Dr V, who comes from Sri Lanka, had not worked in a primary school for 20 years and was unfamiliar with the demands of the National Curriculum for that age group.

"One only needs to be a parent to know that," said Ms Booth, who earns at least pounds 100,000 a year, substantially more than her husband.

But Mr Narayan, disbarred until 1998 for his colourful behaviour although able to represent clients in tribunals, described the treatment of his client as "brazenly and blatantly racist".

Dr V was appointed head of Lea First School in Slough, where 90 per cent of pupils are Asian, by the governors. However, the authority refused to confirm the appointment.

Despite her commitment to Labour politics, Ms Booth's profession has forced her into potentially compromising positions. She has appeared as prosecuting counsel in poll tax cases, and defended a Tory council against a trade union.

According to her friends she is simply doing what all barristers do and operating the "taxi rank principle", whereby they take the first job that comes along.

Occasionally, Ms Booth chewed her nails, in between interrupting Mr Narayan with schoolmarmish refutes. As she dabbed her nose, she had a certain similarity to Susan Sarandon, the star of the film version of Grisham's novel The Client, who is aggressive and pedantic in defence of a boy.

But yesterday's drama resulted in a cliffhanger. The tribunal was unable to reach a decision and all parties, including Ms Booth, went home not knowing the result.

Dr V looked disappointed. "I've been waiting two and half years for this to be sorted out and that's a long time," he said. "Mrs Blair's just doing her job. I know that; it's nothing to do with me. I just want this to be sorted out."