John Rentoul: Cherie twists the knife, before it's too late

In her new book, Mrs Blair attacks Gordon Brown with lawyerly restraint. It's her timing that says most about his premiership

The most wounding judgement that Cherie Blair makes of Gordon Brown in her book is not in the text. Some of the words are certainly wounding enough, although their impact is mainly that of putting on the record views that were well known. The first impression is that her words are mild, carefully phrased and lawyerly in their self-justification.

Thus, if she was sometimes fierce in her resentment of Brown's "impatience" about her husband "moving on", this was because "I was just terribly partisan for Tony and I'm sure Sarah is partisan for Gordon, and so she should be".

She even diverts attention from the fury that she felt about the way Brown advanced his ambition by saying: "Gordon wanted to be leader and he had a perfect right to want to be." A simple rephrasing of what Tony said two years ago: "There is only one top job and it's not an ignoble ambition to want it."

One of Peter Mandelson's maxims was "kill your enemies with cream", and Cherie seems to have put that one in her recipe book. Speaking for Myself, a richly ironic title for a book that could have been called Speaking for My Husband, fits the partly sincere self-image of the Blairites as polite, respectful and party-minded, in contrast to the Brownies, who are nasty, brutish and short-tempered. How fitting that the book should be published under the imprint of Little, Brown or, as it might now be known, Belittle Brown.

Not that it quite works. Yesterday's serialisation in The Times, by compressing extracts from the book, managed to juxtapose two paragraphs that directly contradicted each other. In one, Cherie says that, had Brown "been prepared to implement Tony's programmes on internal reform" – at this point one imagines the author turning from her computer screen to ask what they are – "academy schools, foundation hospitals and pensions, Tony would have stood down, there is no question".

Except that in the preceding paragraph Cherie explains how "I was convinced that if Tony failed to stand for a third term, it would be seen as a response to the negative criticism of the war. It would be read by history as a tacit admission of failure." Now that rings true.

Cherie's account of the Granita period rings true too. She confirms that Blair was determined to seize the Labour leadership, but sought to manage Brown's bruised ego for the sake of "the team". Unsurprisingly, she was one of those in the inner circle – Charles Clarke was another – who wanted Brown to stand so that Blair could defeat him. "'You'll win anyway,' I said. 'So don't come to a deal. Just let him lose.' But Tony said no."

She cannot resist a little revisionism, however. The terms of the deal included, she says, Tony making it clear to Gordon "that he had no intention of staying leader for ever and that when he did stand down he would support Gordon as his natural successor". Then she adds, with the benefit of what looks like hindsight: "... assuming they worked well together as PM and Chancellor in the meantime".

Such touches are forgivable, however. As a general principle, we ought to approve of Cherie's right to set down her own version of events. So much rubbish has been written about her – her holidays, her property dealings, her New Age remedies – that she is entitled to try to set the record straight.

Only yesterday, the Daily Mail was at it again. In the middle of last week the newspaper got wind of the decision to bring forward publication of the book, and put together an 1,800-word "spoiler", which included an eye-catching detail. Apparently, one wall of the Blairs' London home in Connaught Square is adorned by a "life-size colour poster of the Pope, his hands raised in benediction". This is said to be "fixed to the wallpaper with Blu-Tack and illuminated by a single candle on a table below". All most amusing to the higher sensibilities of Mail readers, no doubt. But I am told that it is a "total fabrication".

Normally, it is hard to tell fact from fiction in the curious world of the Mail's Cherie coverage. The author of yesterday's article, Paul Scott, did, after all, bring us the obviously made-up story that Cherie had charged the Labour Party £8,000 for having her hair done during the last election campaign – a story that turned out to be true.

Cherie-reporting is a sub-branch of modern British journalism that is now winding down, partly because Blair is out of office and partly because Cherie has become more aggressive in seeking legal redress. But she is still entitled to try to correct some of the nonsense that has helped to colour people's perceptions of her.

The question is one of timing. And that is where the story of the book's publication becomes interesting. The 30-year rule is being reviewed, in one of Gordon Brown's finer comic touches, by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. Meanwhile the diarists of the Blair years offer divergent interpretations. Alastair Campbell observed a 12-day rule, publishing on 9 July last year; Jonathan Powell, who gave the television cameras a teasing glimpse of his handwritten volumes for his film about Northern Ireland, says "Never" in his best Ian Paisley voice, which is surely going too far the other way.

But if Cherie is going to write a book at all, why will it be in bookshops on Thursday, instead of in October as once planned? The official explanation for its early publication is as partial as Cherie's claim that "Tony thinks Gordon could win the election" (if several impossible things happen by 2010). She "was eager to put paid to rumours about its contents", said The Times yesterday.

This is not untrue. I understand that, once she had defied all precedent in the publishing industry and delivered her text early, one of the arguments for publishing now was the desire to avoid being accused of undermining Labour's annual conference. There have been "rumours" that publication in the autumn would be deliberately unhelpful to the Prime Minister. However, Cherie can hardly say that this was a reason for the change of plan, because it would concede that the contents of the book were damaging to the Government.

There is another factor that must have been in Cherie's mind when she decided, some months ago, to bring publication forward. That is the possibility that Gordon Brown might not be Prime Minister by October. If he went, the marketability of the book – and its serialisation rights – would be radically diminished.

For many of the friends and associates of the Blairs, the endgame for Brown has begun. Elsewhere in The Times yesterday, for example, Peter Hyman, Blair's former speechwriter, called on Brown to make David Miliband Chancellor in the reshuffle that will follow the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Hyman is right that Miliband as Chancellor is the only reshuffle that could make any difference to Brown's fortunes. Yet it would work only because it would be an admission of weakness and an act of generosity towards a rival who could take over if Brown's stock failed to recover.

Cherie surely shares the Blairite view – even if her husband's opinion remains inscrutable – that Brown's chances of leading the party into the next election are no better than 50-50. Best to publish now before her account becomes the dry-as-dust history of two prime ministers ago. That is her book's most wounding judgement about her husband's rival and successor.