Cherie Blair and the poll tax

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The Independent Online
WIVES and husbands of eminent politicians have a hard life, and today this newspaper has hardly helped Mrs Cherie Blair in that regard. Mrs Blair is a practising barrister, as her husband once was, and, as we report on page one, she has earned so me of her living from the application of the law relating to the Community Charge, or poll tax. Two questions arise. Is it right to scrutinise the career and actions of a wife who has no political ambitions? And was she, by her prosecution of poll-tax ca ses, doing something that the public would be better informed by knowing about?

The answer to both questions, in our view, is yes. Some political spouses manage to avoid the limelight: Denis Thatcher was one; Mrs Paddy Ashdown, Mrs John Smith, Lady Steel, and (to some extent) Mrs John Major are others. Mrs Blair was previously a Labour activist, and when her husband succeeded to the party leadership she became what is known as a platform wife, Mrs Tony Blair rather than her professional persona, Ms Cherie Booth. The image of Tony and Cherie as a young, handsome and successful working couple was created as much by the anxieties of the Labour party to make inroads into the middle class as by the inventive power of the media. The result is that she is a public figure.

As to Mrs Blair's poll tax cases, she has the difficulty that as a lawyer she may not comment on them. Barristers must take cases on the "cab-rank" principle - as they come along - at least in theory and unless their chambers have decided to exclude certain kinds of litigation from a moral point of view. None the less, her duty as a lawyer did not require her to deliver her advice to a conference on the way the law might be most successfully enforced, and whether it required her to argue for a defaulter's continued imprisonment is a moot point. The poll tax was the most widely reviled law in recent British history; it helped bring down Mrs Thatcher. Official Labour policy was that the law must be respected, but the party was never slow to exploit its terrible inequities.

Sucessful lives tend to be complicated. Opportunity and choice mean that social, political and moral questions become trickier. This has never much bothered the Tory party, but it has rightly always bothered Labour, whose supporters tend to have fewer opportunities and less choice. Mrs Blair has been unwise.