Behold, the First Couple

Tony and Cherie should learn from Charles and Di, and shut the front door. By Joan Smith
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The Queen wore diamonds and rode in a coach. Cherie Blair wore a dark, knee-length suit and walked hand-in-hand along Whitehall with her husband. As far as picture editors and TV crews were concerned, it was no contest. The Blairs, waving to the crowds who had turned out for the state opening of Parliament on Wednesday, effortlessly relegated the sovereign to a minor role on what used to be one of her biggest days.

The momentous nature of the event left normally cynical observers struggling for words. "Tony Blair and wife Cherie were greeted like royalty as they walked from Downing Street to Parliament for the Queen's Speech", the Mirror gasped. "Incredibly their reception in the warm May sunshine was warmer than the Queen's." The Labour-supporting Sun was even blunter. "Tony Blair upstaged the Queen", it reported, underlining its own priorities by assigning twice as much space to a picture of the Blair walkabout than to a snap of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, dripping with gems, in the Irish State Coach.

Most of the tabloids commented favourably on the Blairs' easy informality, which threw into stark relief the Queen's rigid adherence to tradition. "The leader of the party of the people, in touch with his people", enthused a leader in the Sun, going on to complain that the monarch "seemed strangely old-fashioned in contrast, arriving as always by coach and horses". It was left to the Times to observe that there might be more to the Prime Minister's apparently spontaneous decision to abandon his official car than met the eye. Looking for precedents, it turned to the United States and Jimmy Carter's stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington with his wife, Rosalyn, after he was sworn in as president in January 1977.

This week's walkabout, the paper suggested, was "designed to boost Mr Blair's image as a man of the people, which was carefully cultivated during the election campaign". If so, it succeeded brilliantly, giving a new twist to the ordinary-family-arrives-in-Downing-Street pictures we saw two weekends ago. This time our thoroughly modern couple took one look at the ossified traditions of the state and abandoned them, not in a confrontational or - God forbid - an ideological way but in a manner that made them appear comically irrelevant. In the late 1990s, they seemed to be saying as they strolled in the May sunshine, do we really need the gilded coaches and official Daimlers which maintain the old division between the people and its rulers? Such distinctions are, after all, a ludicrous anachronism for a leader who has already informed his eager new intake of MPs that they are the people's servants now.

It all fits nicely with many of the new administration's other innovations, from abandoning titles in favour of first names at Cabinet meetings to Gordon Brown's decision to make his first Mansion House speech in a lounge suit instead of evening dress. But the route Tony Blair has chosen to embody his modernising project - presenting himself and Cherie as a highly public, presidential-style couple - is replete with risks and paradoxes. That this is what is going on is in little doubt, although American commentators have been quicker to perceive it than many of their British counterparts who, to judge by this week's coverage, are still gazing at the Blairs with stars in their eyes.

Newsweek's post-election cover, for example, featured a grinning, shirt- sleeved Blair under the huge headline "How He Won" - an exact replica of the edition of the magazine that followed Bill Clinton's first presidential win in November 1992. Bill and Hillary, Tony and Cherie: even though she has already returned to her job as a lawyer, this week's pictures of Cherie Blair at the state opening of Parliament on Wednesday and visiting a primary school in Brixton on Thursday suggest that she is far from averse to taking advantage of First Lady-type photo-opportunities.

First and foremost among the paradoxes, however, is that every time the Blairs court media attention in their First Couple guise, the further they remove themselves from the realm of "ordinary" people. After all, how many husbands and wives routinely take their spouses to work with them? Ironically, Friday's colour picture of Tony and Cherie, surrounded by cute infants at Sudbourne Pri- mary School in south London, called to mind images from at least a decade ago: that other high-profile couple, the Prince and Princess of Wales, exchanging words with admiring onlookers in the days before we dis- covered that the real story of the royal marriage was tearful tantrums, bulimia, suicide attempts and infidelity.

This is not to suggest that Tony and Cherie Blair are concealing some dark secret about the true nature of their relationship. But it does point to the obvious danger that, at a moment when the Royal Family has conspicuously failed to fulfil its function of providing the nation with fantasy objects, the Blairs may be unwittingly offering themselves to fill the vacancy. The public hunger for fairy stories, as evinced by our fascination with the Charles and Diana saga, and the Andrew and Fergie sub-plot, is after all boundless; 750 million people in 70 countries watched the royal wedding in 1991, an event marked in Britain by a bank holiday. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was sufficiently carried away by the excitement of the occasion to characterise it as "the stuff of which fairy-tales are made" - waiting a decade and a half to air his private doubts about the wisdom of Prince Charles's choice of bride to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter.

By then the royal couple had long ago discovered that the public appetite for intimate details of the lives of its icons, once stimulated, is almost impossible to discourage. Something of the sort is already happening to the Blairs, and particularly to Cherie, as evinced by the scrutiny afforded to her clothes, her demeanour at work, even her facial expressions. ("Cherie looked at the Queen, then at Tony," a Daily Mail columnist reported last week, "pride was all over her face.") Yet while it could be argued that our fascination with the country's new young leader and his wife is for the moment inevitable, a question remains about how far the Blairs are encouraging - are collusive with - an intrusive degree of curiosity about the day-to-day details of their family life.

Their arrival in Downing Street on foot, the day after the election, was a welcome change in style from an administration whose leader, John Major, appeared to derive his vision of Britain from watching too many Ealing comedies. But Mr and Mrs Blair displayed an unexpected willingness to be photographed exploring their new home, taking tea in the garden, running up and down the stairs, even cuddling the cat. Then there was the curious business of how they chose to move their belongings from Islington. Most families, unless they are operating on a tight budget - a consideration which hardly applies to the new Prime Minister and his wife - employ removal firms to attend to the minutiae of packing. Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of Cherie's shoes, Tony's ties, his electric guitar and amplifier, being hauled into an Islington street by friends, helpers, the Blair children and their nanny, and then into a series of cars and vans.

What this suggests is an ambivalent attitude to privacy - and a dangerous unawareness of what might happen if political expectations are allowed to fuse with the fantasy of a perfect family. Even committed republicans have to admit that the marital difficulties of the Queen's children have played a key role in diminishing respect for the institution itself: how far this process has gone was revealed in this week's Daily Mail headline "Sinner Charles `not fit to lead Church' ". Yet the Blairs are rapidly becoming the symbol of an administration whose political vision, as set out in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday, has to reach well beyond the traditional nuclear family.

New Labour was elected on the expectation that it will improve the lives of all kinds of people - lone mothers, unmarried couples, single people, gay men who want the same age of consent as heterosexuals - who do not see themselves reflected in the happy families saga now being enacted so publicly in Downing Street. And it is that public dimension - the element of conspicuous display - that is so unsettling.

What we are being invited to do is take a stake in the Blair menage in a way that will almost inevitably lead to disappointment - what happens when they have a row, or snap at each other in a restaurant, or have to admit that they suffer from as many stresses and strains as any other family? For those who have bought into the fantasy, the sense of disillusion is likely to be acute; for those who have not, it will be hard to avoid a degree of Schadenfreude.

No doubt the Queen could tell Mr and Mrs Blair a few things about what happens when reality intrudes and the carefully constructed edifice starts to come tumbling down. The First Couple would probably have been wiser, in that sense, to acknowledge the cheering crowds on the morning after the election and then, politely but firmly, close the front door of 10 or 11 Downing Street. They have yet to learn, it seems, that modern fairy stories all too often end in tears.