Joan Smith: Read between Cherie's airbrushed lines

Her publishers may have given her a makeover, but will Mrs Blair reveal her true self and tell the story the public wants to hear?
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The Independent Online

It was, I would have thought, the ultimate humiliation for a feminist. When a British publisher announced last week that it had acquired the rights to the autobiography of one of the country's most famous women, we were allowed an advance peak at the cover. There was the author – soignée, Mona Lisa smile, airbrushed like a supermodel – and there was her name in big letters: Cherie Blair. The accompanying press release claimed that Mrs Blair's life would have been remarkable even if she had not married Tony Blair. But marketing departments understand the very different sales profile of books by Cherie Booth QC, human rights lawyer, and Cherie Blair, prime-ministerial spouse.

So Cherie Blair it is, and there has already been pleasurable speculation about whether she will reveal her feelings towards her husband's successor, Gordon Brown. As far as I'm concerned, this is not the first question that comes to mind; I'm old-fashioned about these things and I'm still wondering whether she can actually write. Someone with genuine talent can make the most humdrum events riveting, but it also happens the other way round. I'd say it's actually more common, disproving the old adage that everyone has a book inside them even if it has to be surgically removed by a team of skilled ghost-writers or coaxed out by the application of a large cheque.

I read Hillary Clinton's autobiography because I was paid to; otherwise I would have dispatched its 500 pages of self-justification, religiosity and avoidance of anything unpleasant to the Oxfam shop. I thought that Mrs Blair's previous work, a volume about life inside No 10, The Goldfish Bowl, was a waste of her abilities, and the only insight I can offer into the tone and content of her autobiography does not augur well. Who, apart from a publisher with a tin ear or the editor of a celebrity magazine, could read Mrs Blair's statement of intent without feeling an irresistible urge to throw up? Here it is in all its glorious, fake-modest, self-help-book bathos: "I feel so privileged to have travelled so far. So much has happened – things that my grandma could never have dreamt of – that it feels wrong somehow just to let it pass as if the journey had no meaning." I expect Stalin's dear old granny would have felt the same.

Is this the Mrs Blair who, on leaving Downing Street for the last time at the end of June, was unable to resist taunting journalists? Or the sanitised version, secretly seething about the way she has been criticised (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) by the press but with no more idea how to handle the situation than she had 10 years ago? There is a school of thought that says that Mrs Blair's unhappy relations with the media are entirely a product of misogyny, and it is true that there have been occasions when I defended her right to speak her mind. She is a leading human rights lawyer and she has as much right to talk about the ethics of torture or indefinite detention as Michael Mansfield, say, or Helena Kennedy.

She has also had to put up with a decade of spiteful remarks about her appearance, and it never really surprised me that she turned for advice to Carole Caplin, who displays the kind of dynamic sexuality which someone lacking in physical confidence might easily yearn for. This kind of bullying happens to men in public life as well; I know how hurt Robin Cook was by jibes about his appearance when he became Foreign Secretary. But I don't think the columnists who casually toss out these poison darts realise how destabilising it is to be constantly mocked when you are married to a man who is overflowing with charm and confidence. After Bill Clinton became President, I lost count of the times his wife changed her hairstyle, and the Hillary of today – now Senator Clinton and a presidential candidate in her own right – bears all the hallmarks of a carefully constructed artefact. Earnest young Hillary Rodham with her frizzy hair and unfashionable causes has long been banished, and so has – strangely for a feminist – her insistence on using her own name.

This name business is important. If Cherie had stuck to talking about the law and human rights, the boundary between Booth and Blair might have remained clear. But she didn't and that, along with a working-class girl's chronic insecurity about money, is what kept getting her into trouble. I have long suspected that the confusion about her surname, which was actually encouraged by Downing Street, is symbolic of private conflicts that Mrs Blair at least (I am not so sure about Ms Booth) will not want to air in public. Her publisher has promised "a warm, intimate, and often very funny portrait of a family living in extraordinary circumstances", but that's hardly going to create Harry-Potterish midnight queues outside bookshops next autumn. In an era when it is assumed that confession is good for the bank balance, if not for the soul, readers are not going to stump up in the required numbers if Cherie's autobiography turns out to be full of cheery anecdotes about her family (whose privacy she guarded fiercely throughout her husband's premiership) and Humphrey the cat.

Her problem, in signing a contract to write a book at all, is that there is no guarantee that the story she wants to tell so soon after leaving Downing Street is one that the country wants to hear. The temptation will be to settle scores, although it may be that Cherie is sufficiently mature (or conscious of her public image) to resist it. At the same time, there is a growing sense that there was something neurotic and dysfunctional at the heart of the Blair government, and who is likely to know more about that than Cherie? For a clever, ambitious, needy girl from a working-class family, living in the shade of a charming public schoolboy cannot have been easy; for a feminist, being exposed to the misogynist, covertly homoerotic atmosphere of her husband's inner circle must have been infuriating.

Alastair Campbell's diaries, which were published earlier this year, offer glimpses into this world in which nervy, insecure men compete to parade their masculinity; their abiding image is surely that of the prime minister lounging about in his underwear, exchanging blokeish banter with his press secretary. There is a fascinating thesis to be written about the sexual politics of the Blair era and the dire effect it had on the careers of Labour women: Clare Short, Estelle Morris, Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Beckett. I doubt if Downing Street, especially when Alastair Campbell was roaming the corridors, was a comfortable environment for anyone without a Y chromosome.

It is fascinating to speculate about the impact this might have had on the former prime minister's relationship with the unambiguously masculine George Bush and on Britain's foreign policy. If Ms Booth decided to wait a few years and tell this story after a period of judicious reflection, her autobiography would be unputdownable. But Mrs Blair's journey? Pass, I'm afraid.