Deborah Orr: Cherie Blair has turned the private life of a PM's spouse into public property

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The Independent Online

"Goodbye. We won't miss you," Cherie Blair told the press, on the day of her husband's handover of power to Just Gordon. Touchingly, it appears that she has missed us, so very much that she's spent every spare minute of her new, less scrutinised life, scribbling away at her memoirs, inviting with their surprise-surprise publication another round of the comment and the speculation she had claimed to be so exasperated by.

Since Mrs Blair is well known to be materially acquisitive and obsessively insecure about income, she must have known that the publication of her autobiography, Speaking For Myself, would be greeted with a barrage of cynical remarks about her greed. It has been, of course. But it appears that Mrs Blair is willing to put up with such accusations, as long as there's money in it. Oh dear.

I've never found all the reports about Mrs Blair's avarice to be particularly compelling. The way people go on, you'd think that she is some sort of weird aberration, a grossly atypical bread-head operating in a society that is otherwise awfully spiritual and not in the least concerned with material wealth.

Yet her husband's government swept into power with a promise that they were entirely relaxed about the "filthy rich". At least they proved one point. They have no trouble at all with being filthy rich themselves. On the contrary, they are dead keen to be filthy rich. Anyway, I sort of believe there's a psychological impetus behind Mrs Blair's compulsion. I find the well-worn excuses about her fear of past poverty to be credible, even if they are not logical or admirable.

Yes, there's something creepy about Mrs Blair explaining to the journalists she so mistrusts that really her new £4m mansion is scrupulously modest, compared to the much bigger pile next door. Yes, there's something pathetic about her eagerness to advertise her sacrifice, when she had to beg Silvio Berlusconi not to buy her an extravagant welter of neck jewels, because it was against the rules.

And yes, it's disappointing that Mrs Blair has cashed in on her husband's profile, unlike Ros Mark, the nanny she took to court to stop from doing the same thing, and unlike the style adviser Carole Caplin whom Mrs Blair still praises for not being low enough to do what she herself has done.

The media always argues that when celebrities invade their own privacy, then they are abdicating the right to complain when others follow suit. It is not an argument I feel comfortable with, but it is one that many distinguished journalists feel passionately is right.

Not that Mrs Blair's memoir is the candid exposé it is claimed to be, unless The Times newspaper, in its serialisation, has made the impossible decision to extract only those incidents that its readers have some familiarity with already. Mrs Blair sticks mainly to retelling stories that have already found their way into the public domain, but in the hope of exposing herself or her husband in a more flattering light. The descriptions of Tony Blair's great regret over the suicide of David Kelly, the WMD expert whose advice was ignored in the prosecution of the war in Iraq, feels particularly tasteless.

Yet, for all her toughness, Mrs Blair still wants to be liked and to be understood. That insecurity, despite all she has achieved in her own right, is an expression of vulnerability and need. It makes me want to like her, and to understand her. So I have to confess that for me, partially at least, this fresh exposure has worked.

I even shed a little tear when Mrs Blair described her miscarriage, at 47. This wasn't only because the rawness of her pain was moving in itself. It was also because her loss was immediately filleted for its political implications. It was thought that the holiday Mrs Blair would have to cancel, in her illness, would prompt the press to speculate that the invasion of Iraq was imminent. So her private loss was turned into a trivial news story, in order to head off rumours of a coming folly involving the deaths of so very many. How miserable. How revolting.

Yet, there is an uncomfortable contrast here too. Mrs Blair has chosen to reveal considerable detail about the conception and birth of her youngest child, Leo, herself. Her explanation of how she became pregnant has been seized upon with some enthusiasm. No wonder.

Mrs Blair's revelation that she didn't take her contraception because she had felt embarrassed when security men at Balmoral had searched her toilet bag before, is quite something. Teenage girls are supposed to be the ones who get pregnant because they are too shy to bring up the issue of contraception with their sexual partners. One might imagine that in a relationship of the longevity and closeness of the Blairs, a hint that it was Tony's turn to provide the necessary would not have been too great a challenge.

Then there is the score-settling. No doubt it is horrible to have your every move sized up by minders such as Alastair Campbell, Fiona Millar and Anji Hunter. The miscarriage tale confirms that. But these people were appointed to help her husband, and trusted by him. Every time Mrs Blair came under public scrutiny, and put her husband in a hole, it was because she'd ignored their advice.

So again one feels that Mrs Blair likes the trappings of high office that she enjoys, and wants everyone to feel sorry for her when some that she does not like have to be endured. Sympathy drains away again, and Mrs Blair just seems a little bit spoilt and confused.

Early on in Blair's premiership, Fiona Millar, Mrs Blair's adviser, wisely felt it would be a good idea to take the opportunity to define more clearly the role of a premier's spouse in the modern age, and the responsibilities and boundaries that ought to guide and support people who found themselves in such a difficult situation. Millar says she regrets that this was not achieved.

Likewise, Mrs Blair's book about life at Number 10, which was written by her alter-ego, Ms Booth, and Kate Haste, explored the experiences of political spouses since the 1950s, and how they coped with doing a high-profile and important non-job, with no rules, no qualifications or training, and, of course, no pay, in a world in which the media was becoming ever more intrusive.

This invitation for the media to intrude once again, even though Mrs Blair is no longer living in the hated goldfish bowl, certainly does not do many favours to future prime ministerial spouses, who will no doubt face similar contradictions and dilemmas to Mrs Blair.

The message, surely, is that the private life of a prime ministerial spouse is something that is of legitimate public interest. In publishing her book, Mrs Blair has herself helped to foster a culture that she paradoxically believes is something of a difficult and unfair burden. I don't imagine that Sarah Brown, for one, is particularly grateful to her for that.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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