For once, I can applaud Mrs Blair

There have been too many times when she has failed herself and others by playing the tongueless, loyal wife
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It doesn't kill you to say you may have been wrong. I may have been wrong, very wrong, about Cherie Blair in believing that these years in Downing Street have turned her, made her vain, self regarding, wealth crazy and (worst of all) careless about human rights. I still think she has too many suspect best friends and advisers, that she could keep a more dignified distance from Bush, that she looked ridiculous weeping on television because her son was going to university in Bristol - Bristol not Kandahar. But as a new blizzard builds up over her in the press, I find myself wanting furiously to defend Mrs Blair for doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Finally.

It doesn't kill you to say you may have been wrong. I may have been wrong, very wrong, about Cherie Blair in believing that these years in Downing Street have turned her, made her vain, self regarding, wealth crazy and (worst of all) careless about human rights. I still think she has too many suspect best friends and advisers, that she could keep a more dignified distance from Bush, that she looked ridiculous weeping on television because her son was going to university in Bristol - Bristol not Kandahar. But as a new blizzard builds up over her in the press, I find myself wanting furiously to defend Mrs Blair for doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Finally.

News is that the Prime Minister's wife spoke up during her much publicised, lucrative lecture tour in the US. It was apparently during a private address at Harvard University in Boston with a select and well-vetted audience of about a hundred students and academic staff. In her first two public talks Cherie Blair was bland and sparkling like babycham (just what it takes to wow American audiences). Political questions were kept at bay, understandably with the election so close.

But in Boston, where due care was taken to keep the event discreet, it is claimed that she said she admired the US Supreme Court for insisting on legal protection for two of the British detainees in Guantanamo Bay and for upholding gay rights in Texas, the state with ultra-conservative values which just loves George Bush. Her remarks were leaked to the British press. She is quoted as saying that the Supreme Court decision on the prisoners was a profoundly important "victory for human rights and the international rule of law". Inevitably there is a queue building up of those who wish to denounce the woman. The irritating, always yelping Liam Fox says she was wrong to "act in a partisan way when abroad [especially] ... at election times". Republicans are furious that the wife of the British Prime Minister has dared to comment on what they consider are domestic matters, for the Americans to resolve themselves. Oh they do get hot under those wide collars, US citizens, if they feel "outsiders" are in any way judging them or interfering in their public life. A bit rich for a nation which has, for years, manipulated and determined elections and politics the world over, often against the interests of ordinary people. Lest we forget, who funded IRA terror bombs for decades? Who placed General Pinochet in power? Who arranged for the Shah to replace the democratic leader Dr Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953?

Once, enlightened people in the US and elsewhere were free to rage against such political crimes. In our times though, we are not permitted to slam the hyperpower because it was brutally attacked on 11 September 2001. That Cherie Blair spoke her words in America, in this atmosphere of suffocating censorship, is extraordinarily courageous.

Her words and her work raise many questions and issues. First, this wife has shaken up the convention that the partner of our elected leader must always maintain a dumb presence. Over the weekend, Sandra Howard, wife of the Tory leader, spoke of her own lack of a real career and said of Cherie Blair: "She has done a huge amount for the future wives of future leaders and achieved so much in keeping her job, having a baby and everything." Yes and no. Who knows what will be going on behind closed doors in the marital home after this uproar. She will probably be made to withdraw her remarks and eat them. On this occasion she has indeed shown herself to be a gutsy role model, but there have been too many times when she has failed herself and others by playing the tongueless, excessively lipsticked, totally loyal wife.

Even allowing for the deep love she obviously has for Tony, there have been moments when her devotion to her husband has appeared as destructive as his unquestioned fidelity to George Bush. Now we have all loved people with massive egos and tragic flaws - nothing to be done about that, in fact such steadfastness is admirable. To still find her husband credible shows the depth of her affection and commitment. And obviously she has to show self control and behave with impeccably good judgement.

No one expected Mrs Blair to come out in her trainers on the anti-war marches. We understand her very difficult position, but was it really necessary for her to proactively promote the illegal war to Labour Party members? And why, so far, has she not made a forthright legal point about the institutionalised that goes on and on at Guantanamo Bay? You only have to read the powerful book, Guantanamo: America's War on Human Rights by the tenacious journalist David Rose to see just what is being violated today by Bush and Blair. For as long as this is allowed to go on (and Kerry has been utterly silent on the prison) Britons and Americans have no moral authority in the world, and no respect either. How does a highly esteemed human rights lawyer, Cherie Booth QC, accept this travesty?

Well clearly she hasn't, if reports of this infamous speech are anything to go by. And if human rights and equality for gays in the US got her impassioned enough to discard diplomatic caution, there must be many other home-grown government policies and pronouncements which are making her uneasy, maybe even apoplectic. Suddenly I can imagine her using high velocity bedtime nagging to keep Blair awake, using her skills as a lawyer to question him over the many dreadful ideas he has backed and defended.

If you run out of topics, Cherie, here are a few reminders: our iniquitous asylum laws, the Gambling Bill, the 100,000 Iraqis killed in the past year and a half, the terrorism measures which bury people in our high security prisons without being tried or charged fairly, the systemic erosion of the judicial system and its values which have grown slowly over hundreds of years. The Lord Chief Justice, the truly civilised Lord Woolf, is reported to have decided to retire four years early because he can no longer tolerate a concerted campaign against him by ministers and their favourite journalists. Human rights lawyers are exercised about every one of these issues, and about this hounding of a decent, reformist judge. Cherie Blair is a brilliant human rights lawyer. Ergo...

Many of us previous supporters of Labour, have grown wearily used to the truth that a New Labour Government finds it remarkably easy to cast off principles, beliefs, ideals, promises, its own political identity, as if these have been cumbersome disguises, costumes they had to wear to get the prize of power into their hands. Until the next time, when, tedious though it is, the old grandiloquence and earnestness is pulled out of the drawers, freshened and ironed, to be worn again by Blair and his cohorts all speaking about how they have been put on earth to deliver us. But now most people are absolutely tired of the lies and the postures.

The great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in 1792: "I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves." If Mrs Blair has now found her voice it may not help her party, but it will help the nation feel less cynical and hopeless.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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