The woman of substance who remains an enigma

The airbrushed image of Cherie Booth masks an extraordinary personality , writes Suzanne Moore

You have to be pretty tough, ambitious and determined to be Prime Minister, but close to Tony Blair there is someone still tougher and more ambitious: his wife, Cherie. Whatever it is Tony has, Cherie has more. Those who have met her tell you over and over again that she is cleverer than him, warmer than him, better at talking to voters than him, more interesting and engaging than him. Yet she is not him and has been relegated in this campaign to a limpet-like role. Mute, doe-eyed, dropping back every time the camera is present, we have heard nothing from this extraordinary woman, the so-called secret weapon of the Labour campaign.

Her silence has been golden. It has neutralised electoral fears of loony lefty lawyers, of superwomen, of strident Hillary Clinton types. Cherie - we still don't really know how to pronounce her name - has uttered only half a sentence in the last few weeks, and that was in the Molly Dineen party election broadcast. We don't know what she really thinks about moving house. Instead, we have been fed air-brush wholesomeness, the family values portraits, the snippets in Prima about meals to cook in 30 minutes and advice about not cutting your toenails in front of your man. Cherie certainly knows how to keep mystery in her marriage because she is a mystery. What you see is definitely not what you get. The word most often used admiringly about her is sphinx.

The less we hear of that deep, husky voice, the more difficulty we have squaring the way she appears with the way she appears to be. Fragile, shy, awkward and continually grabbing at Tony's sleeves - including yesterday's almost embarrassing attempt to kiss Tony on the steps of Number 10 - she looks a model of subservience, making Jemima Khan look Scary Spice. Then we have to dispute the facts. She's a top lawyer, a have-it-all superwoman, Catholic, a high achiever with an embarrassing dad, a woman capable of setting her mind to anything. Fiercely intelligent, proudly political, she has insisted that she will carry on with her career. She will have a life outside of her husband's, an autonomy that no former partner of a prime minister has had before. This, anyway, is her ambition. Whether it can be achieved or not is already being debated. She wants to be a judge, she is already an Assistant Recorder, but it is possible that her role will be compromised by her husband's position. If she were to be involved in judicial reviews, interpreting legislation, she could find herself advocating against Labour policy. The conflict of interests would be obvious. Apart from this, however, it would be difficult for her to accompany her husband on important foreign trips, which friends say she would want to do, once she had committed herself to long-term cases. One senses a woman who is trying to cling on to an old life because she just can't imagine what her new one will be.

Is her head full of ideas about rearranging children's bedrooms? Is she worried that there is no Sainsbury's near Downing Street? Has she thought about where Kathryn will go to school? Does she need yet more new clothes, another make-over? Does she like being a willing accomplice to the spinners and winners of the Labour aristocracy? Will she continue to be squired by Peter Mandelson and given advice by the Campbells? How many more sacrifices must she make? If she were to open her mouth one imagines nothing but a scream. Even amid the jubilation of a Labour victory her task is not enviable.

She is learning how to be a consort and in doing so is having to unlearn the independence that a woman of her generation fought hard for. If she and her husband have needed to make a conventional family life as a defence against the instability of both their backgrounds, she has still had the room to pursue a career. Now, though, because of her husband, she must play the dutiful wife, though the fear that she would be demonised as a Hillary Clinton figure has largely evaporated. Cherie was not involved in the leadership contest and has never sat in on policy meetings as Hillary did. Instead, she proved herself as a good "constituency wife", tremendously popular in Sedgefield and some would say that the remaking of her image was just part of a fortysomething crisis that she would have gone through anyway.

Nonetheless, she has been hurt and humiliated by the intense media scrutiny to which she is subject. Our fascination with her inappropriate body language persists largely because we have nothing else to go on. It is clear that she and her husband don't know how to behave in public. Why should they? But for a modern, media-savvy couple, they are remarkably innocent of their own image. One insider puts this down to simple lack of taste. "The Blairs have no taste at all. They are just not stylish. In that way they are the real thing, genuinely classless. They are not properly middle- class, actually they are quite naff. Tony used to have this revolting yellow baseball jacket."

Others recall times before her husband's ascent when a beleaguered and exhausted Cherie would be rushing around the "bomb site" of a house stripping beds. All this, of course, is far more endearing than the see-through media manipulation that has been going on of late.

Far from being the threat to other women that the male spin-doctors fear, Cherie instead embodies many of the contradictions that women far less high-flying than herself are familiar with. Cherie may have it all but not a single woman I spoke to wants what Cherie has. "It must be hell," they said again and again. It must be.

The closing down of the Labour Party in order to win this election has meant that Cherie has lived with this intense discipline. What people see when they look at her is the split between her public life and her private self. Sometimes she quite literally looks torn, in pain. At such moments, we realise that maybe she is not what she seems, but somehow we know she is strong enough to suffer in order to persuade us that this is the case.

There is no slipping off into becoming a Denis Thatcher-like caricature. Instead, she must put huge effort into looking relaxed, behaving naturally. The work ethic that has always compelled Cherie has always produced results. She is not used to failure. So she is working overtime at being passive, absenting herself from any controversy, labouring at being when she would rather be doing. I hope it's all worth it. I really do. Five years of meeting and greeting, grinning and bearing it is a lot for anyone to take.

My fantasy about her is personal rather than political.

Something will crack and she will find herself accidentally pregnant a year on from now. Her life plan, so beautifully organised, will appear to crumble. But the child will do an unpopular government a power of good. It will be treated as a royal baby and it will be born to a judge who continues to work throughout her pregnancy.

Cherie, in spite of her desire to perform and conform, will find herself with the autonomy she requires. And Tony? He may be shocked at first, but even he will see that a judge with morning sickness is part of the brave new future that he once promised to deliver.

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