A law unto herself; profile; Cherie Blair

Joan Smith on the QC, working mother and `Spouse Girl' who won't be pigeon-holed
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The Independent Online
It is no great distance, across London, from Cherie Booth's house in Islington to her new home at No 10 Downing Street. But the map is deceptive. Overnight, she has been transformed from a high-flying barrister into the wife of Britain's first Labour Prime Minister for almost two decades. Unlike the United States, there is no quasi-official role of first lady for her to assume, but expectations are high. The first working mother with school-age children to occupy No 10, she is entering uncharted territory from which she may emerge triumphant - but only if she can negotiate the strains and conflicts of her unique position.

Signs of tension began to emerge during the election campaign, when many political observers watched in dismay as the highly articulate Cherie Booth appeared to be eclipsed by the far more dutiful, and mostly silent, Mrs Blair. That process - unkindly described in some quarters as the "dumbing down" of Ms Booth - was brought into the open last week by the American magazine Newsweek, which commented unfavourably on her "convent quiet". Pondering the apparent paradox of an election in which women's votes mattered more than ever before, yet men still got to do most of the talking, the magazine complained about the way in which the "Spouse Girls" - Mrs Blair and Mrs Major - had remained on the sidelines.

Newsweek is far from alone in its frustration. Ms Booth's role has been, over the past six weeks, barely distinguishable from that played by Norma Major in the rival camp. And yet the two women, on paper, could hardly be less alike - although she has written a couple of books, Mrs Major has never aspired to the kind of separate, full-time career which Ms Booth so obviously enjoys. The latter has a first-class law degree from the London School of Economics, a legal practice reputed to bring home a six- figure salary, and at 42 she is already taking the first steps towards becoming a judge. "She's my role model," enthuses her friend, the Australian novelist Kathy Lette. "She one of the kid and career jugglers who doesn't drop things. She's amazing."

Yet Ms Booth's reticence during the campaign reinforces the impression created by her decision, a few months ago, to guest-edit the mass-market women's magazine Prima. Talking enthusiastically about knitting patterns, she sounded for a moment like a woman who had gritted her teeth and, modelling herself on Hillary Rodham Clinton, taken a decision to enter cookie-baking territory. Newsweek's verdict on her performance during the campaign was disapproving, to say the least. Record numbers of women had stood for Parliament, the magazine observed, adding: "In Britain, it seems, it's only the role of the political wife that is frozen in time." But how fair is this judgement?

The case for Ms Booth is that she has found herself, since her husband became leader of the Labour Party, in an impossible position: like the Princess of Wales, her hair, her clothes, her every gesture, have been picked over by a curious and sometimes hostile press. In another parallel with Diana, the media obsession with her clothes led to a rapid loss of weight although she stopped short, unlike the princess, of damaging her health. Two months ago, a joke question about her underwear from an Independent journalist at a press conference led to a ludicrous headline in the Sun: "Fury at quiz on [Blair's] wife's thong."

A Sunday Times journalist, Chrissy lley, launched a lengthy piece of amateur psycho-analysis last autumn with an invitation to her readers to "imagine Tony and Cherie Blair in bed. I bet she sleeps in satin viscose, Peter Pan-collar pyjamas". Even Ms Booth's alleged reluctance to empty her handbag in front of her husband was used as evidence against her: "If you've never spilt out your handbag, it probably means you've never spilt out your emotional entrails." This indicated, according to lley, that Ms Booth had never expressed her feelings about the way in which her father, the actor Tony Booth, deserted her in infancy and "came back later in a grand reunion after years of abandonment, alcohol and a tortuous relationship with Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street".

All these biographical details about Ms Booth's early life, along with the story of how she met Tony Blair when they were both trainee barristers in the chambers of Derry Irvine, are well known. And it is hardly surprising, when this kind of interpretation is placed upon them, that she appears to have decided to say as little in public as possible. It may even be that she does not need to talk to the press, friendly or otherwise, to fulfil the role that many women expect of her. Her presence in Downing Street marks a seismic shift in our political culture, neatly summed up by Lette's verdict that "she is not a Stepford Wife. She's not just a human handbag".

It's certainly the case that Cherie Booth QC is unlikely to emulate her Old Labour predecessor, Mary Wilson, whose traditional approach to the unofficial job of Prime Minister's wife is revealed by the diaries of the former Cabinet minister, Richard Crossman.

Here is an entry from July 1967 which gives a flavour of life in Downing Street during the Wilson administration: "I had to go to No 10 for one of Mary Wilson's tea-parties for the ladies ... I went out of the sweltering hot afternoon to a delightful room upstairs, open from end to end, with flowers and all the ladies in their summer dresses and hats. Frankly they were all jolly good-looking and I would have enjoyed it but for the fact that 170 MPs' wives were all saying to me, `Of course you know who I am?' How does one remember? This year they didn't have labels giving their names."

In those days Labour women, with honourable exceptions like Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams, meant Labour wives. They had to be rewarded for all the work they put in at constituency level but they were not political animals in their own right; Wilson's successor, Jim Callaghan, barely mentioned his wife Audrey when he came to write his autobiography, Time and Chance. By contrast, Cherie Booth's own ambition to become a Labour MP - she stood for the hopeless seat of Thanet West in 1983 - was abandoned only when her husband found a safe seat first.

"She's passionate about politics," says Lette, unintentionally putting her finger on one of the problems of the unprecedented Booth-Blair partnership. Ms Booth is often described as more left-wing than her husband, and more intelligent - exactly the same "charge" which has been levelled at those other political couples, the Clintons and the Kinnocks. At one level, this represents an atavistic fear of intelligent women and the influence they are assumed to have on their husbands, a stereotype which surfaced unpleasantly during the election campaign in the demonising of Neil Hamilton's wife, Christine.

BUT American experience does not bode well for the Blairs - Newsweek claimed this week that Labour's spin doctors took a decision to "bubble- wrap" Ms Booth for the duration of the election campaign, terrified that she would develop a version of the "Hillary problem" which led to the rapid abandonment of the Clintons' much-vaunted co-presidency.

Whatever the truth of this allegation, it does refer to a real problem: while many women (and many voters) long to see more women play an active part in political life, they are uncomfortable when that role is achieved through marriage rather than direct election. If you want power, runs the argument, seek it for yourself and not through your husband.

In the States, attempts to modernise the role of First Lady have for the most part ended badly. In September 1960, the New York Times claimed that Jackie Kennedy's appearance as the wife of the Democratic presidential candidate in "orange pullover sweater, shocking pink Capri pants and a bouffant hairdo" signified "something of possible political consequences" - yet the promised revolution turned out to be little more than window- dressing. But the signs are that Cherie Booth, with her flourishing legal career, is attempting something much more interesting.

"What she's trying to do," says one Westminster insider, "is carve out some form of middle way whereby she has her own career and yet she's supportive of his political ambitions with which she quite clearly identifies. The question is whether you can pursue that road."

There are already indications of how difficult that might be; last summer, button-holing guests at a fund-raising party in Pimlico for the charity Refuge, Ms Booth worked the room efficiently but in a manner which had uncomfortable echoes of Victorian philanthropy.

She has the advantage, though, of believing passionately in the same things as her husband. Mary Wilson, by contrast, only wanted to be the wife of an Oxford don - and the Crossman diaries reveal that she entered No 10 "embittered and unhappy". But four years later, Crossman noted approvingly: "She has built up her self-confidence and behaves more like a widow than a wife. She is alive and plays a bigger role in his life than ever and he's not jealous of her success because she's so cool, collected and determined not to go beyond herself."

This weekend, as she assesses the family accommodation in the attics at No 10, it is inconceivable that Cherie Booth/Blair is contemplating anything so self-effacing. "I started life as the daughter of someone, now I am the wife of someone and I'll probably end up as the mother of someone," she once said, but the sentiment is misleading. The real question, and the answer matters for all of us, is whether she can succeed as a working mother and political spouse without making unacceptable compromises in terms of her own undoubted ambitions. Lette, for one, has no anxieties on that score. "Cherie is all my favourite F-words," she declared on Friday "Feminist, funny, friendly, fabulous. What a great model for women as we approach the millennium."