The Wife: Cherie tries to modernise role of premier's consort, despite the many misjudgements

When Cherie Blair opened her home to the women's magazine Marie Claire and was photographed having her lip-liner applied by her lifestyle guru, Carole Caplin, this week, there were sighs of disbelief at Westminster.

The vision of Ms Caplin sitting with Mrs Blair on the prime ministerial bed revived memories of last year's "flatgate" saga. Mrs Blair was vilified for relying on the negotiating skills of Ms Caplin's erstwhile boyfriend, a convicted Australian conman, Peter Foster, to buy two luxury flats for her son in Bristol.

Her judgement was called into question, as was her reliance on Ms Caplin to give her "lifestyle" advice.

Mrs Blair is a successful human rights barrister whose interventions on policy issues, including restorative justice, have won her a good deal of respect. She is credited with having pushed forward the agenda on domestic violence, which resulted in a widely praised policy document last month, and she has championed the cause of mothers sent to prison for petty crimes.

Many believe that Mrs Blair, who in 1983 stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in Thanet North, could have become a serious political player in her own right. She gained a first-class degree at the London School of Economics and came top in her bar exams. With her successful career, happy family life and friendly manner, many are puzzled by her reliance on Ms Caplin.

Of all the prime ministerial wives in recent history, Mrs Blair is the most modern. Norma Major was satisfied with writing coffee table books and Mary Wilson played the dutiful wife and wrote books of poetry. But prime ministerial wives have not all been shrinking violets.

Violet Attlee was much less a public figure than is Mrs Blair, though that did not make her a mere accessory to her husband. She beat him at billiards after he taught her the game and played a fair round of golf.

And, had the opportunity been open to her, she might have had more in common with Mrs Blair. Just as today's prime ministerial consort has been known to flirt with alternative therapies, her contemporary from more than half a century ago spent a spell in a clinic to learn "relaxation techniques".

Mrs Blair's attempts to update the role of the prime minister's wife have incensed right-wing tabloids, who have accused her of intervening in politics. She was criticised when she chaired the millennium policy seminar at Downing Street as her husband and ministers looked on.

Since 1997, when a tabloid paper delivered a bunch of flowers to her front door in a sting operation to catch her looking dishevelled in the morning, she has been wary of the press. So why, some ask, does she not resist the lure of women's magazines, including Harper's Bazaar which is poised to publish a fashion shoot with Mrs Blair.

At a recent Downing Street party for female journalists, Mrs Blair was bombarded with requests from representatives of women's magazines to write articles and do interviews. "We can do that can't we?" she inquired of her aides.

Her reluctance to say no has got her into trouble before, and she seems to have a predilection for accepting freebies. From shopping trips in Australia, to her acceptance of free holidays, Mrs Blair's love of an expenses-paid lifestyle is no secret.

But Mrs Blair has grown into a more confident figure since the early image of her looking doe-eyed into her husband's eyes. She has also traded her bondage-style boots and leggings for a wardrobe of expensive designer clothes.

In 1997 Mrs Blair was plunged under the media spotlight and asked to meet a challenge she was never properly prepared for. Hence, her reliance on Ms Caplin.