THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT CHERIE
With all of the U.K. howling, 'Go, Tony, go!' why is he staying on? Look to Cherie, the oddest political spouse in British history.
A year ago, Tony Blair was celebrating his re-election to an epoch-making third term as Britain’s prime minister, the first Labour party leader to achieve this. At his side stood Cherie, the picture of wifely devotion, gazing up adoringly with her familiar gargoyle grin. Hidden in the frame, always present though always invisible when Mrs. Blair is on duty, was the London judge and international human rights lawyer, Miss Cherie Booth, Q.C. Who are these two women who have combined to make Cherie possibly the oddest political spouse in British history?
Whoever they are, they pack a powerful punch. In the last week alone, three of Blair’s cabinet ministers were fighting for their survival, one pleading guilty to gross dereliction of duty, another presiding over unprecedented budget deficits, while the third, a former keeper of the party’s conscience, was caught out in a raving adulterous affair, with more women coming out of the woodwork every day. Then came last Thursday’s municipal elections, with Labour losing control of 18 local authorities and coming in third in the overall vote—one of the worst results for the party ever. Blair responded by shuffling his cabinet, and sacking one of his beleaguered ministers: home secretary Charles Clarke. But what about the PM? Blair has already promised to step down for his deputy, Chancellor Gordon Brown, when the right moment came. Now the whole country is howling, “Go, Tony, go!” So why is he staying on?
Cherchez la femme. Cherie Blair is doing what she has always done for Tony since she first drew him into the Labour party in their youth: stiffening his resolve to go on, while vigor-
ously pursuing her own career. That’s been the pattern since they met as junior barristers at the same London law firm. At 21, trailing a glittering First from the London School of Economics, Cherie had passed out top in the barristers’ exams for the whole of the U.K. She was already active in Labour party politics, seeking a seat in Parliament as Tony was also throwing his hat into the ring. Qualifying as a barrister before she was either a wife or a mother and working flat out for the last 30 years, she has established herself as a judge in England and an international advocate at the European Court of Justice and elsewhere. She is the political leader in the partnership, just as she is the major breadwinner and the better legal brain.
With a CV like this, Cherie would inevitably be a political partner in the Hillary Clinton mould, unlike any wife of a British prime minister before. Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, wrote poetry; John Major’s wife, Norma, consoled herself with opera while her husband was doing what a PM had to do. No previous Downing Street spouse, not even Dennis Thatcher, had a full-time, highpowered job that developed into a worldwide career, while still getting down and dirty with the PM on local politics or affairs of state. Recent rumblings among the backbenchers in Parliament that Cherie is making herself Britain’s first First Lady by stealth show they haven’t been paying attention.
That happened long ago. Cherie has always been the power behind the throne, and now sees herself as the co-ruler too.
How has this come about? Cherie has long been brilliant, driven and hugely ambitious. For most people, childhood hungers are assuaged by adult success. But Cherie’s appetites have increased with her achievements, and her neediness has rocketed as
her status has soared. The little girl born Cherie Booth in 1954 was driven by one big idea: to work her way out of the mess fate had landed her in. Britain’s first First Lady now seems impelled by a welter of demands and desires: for property, for luxury, the high life, designer gowns, and shoes, shoes, shoes.
All this calls for cash, gobs of it. When Tony got into Parliament in 1983, Cherie agreed to support his political career on the understanding that he would retire in time for her to pursue her own ambition to become a High Court judge. At the time, this must have seemed quite a nice little earner for a young woman just beginning in law. But a decade at 10 Downing Street has changed all that. What she wants now is money, power and privilege, and she knows this depends on Tony being the leader, not an ex-PM.
People are keen to hire the wife of the prime minister and feel a connection to the main seat of power in the land. Cherie hand-picks her cases and charges what she likes. And don’t underestimate the cash value of the perks. The PM and his wife and four children fly first class. There is free accommodation to be had at the best hotels.
But Cherie mixes in Tony’s world at her peril, cursed with a fatal knack of getting it wrong and enraging even those on her own side. Last month, Labour was stunned to discover that Cherie had billed the party
the equivalent of $18,000 for the services of a personal hairdresser during the last election campaign. Some of Britain’s aged poor are getting no more than that to live on for an entire year. Challenged, a Labour spokeswoman retorted, “So what?”
And Cherie is earning a minimum of $500,000 a year. Tony himself picks up a hefty $ 365,000. Couldn’t she pay for her hairdresser herself? Curiously blind to the way ordinary people think, Cherie never seems to have thought of that. Her lowly origins allow her to present herself as a good socialist and one of the proletariat, but increasingly she seems more Marie Antoinette than Marianne.
Why? The seeds lie in her tough childhood. Inside Cherie, and increasingly clamouring to be let out, is the desperately needy little girl who grew up trying to make sense of a situation riven with contradictions that would have defeated a lesser child. Her father, Tony Booth, was one of Britain’s most popular TV stars. He was also violent, alcoholic and often unhinged. He appeared every week for 10 years in the family sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, yet he had dumped Cherie, her mother and her baby sister on his own parents in order to run away from this family of his own.
From the first, then, Cherie was faced with
a ragged patchwork of reality and the realization that no one could help her stitch a life together but herself. Cherie’s father, mother and grandparents were all devout Catholics, which meant her mother caved in to Tony Booth’s treatment in the name of keeping the family together, while the father ran around creating new families, producing eight daughters in all, his exploits filling the tabloids. Cash was short, but in their tight local community, gossip and humiliation were in plentiful supply. A child denied her childhood, Cherie had to be the grown-up in a family where none of the adults could call the father and provider to account. This early deprivation of money and respect bears directly on the ironclad sense of entitlement Cherie now displays.
It’s not easy being a politician’s spouse. As a Labour wife in a traditional working-class party, Cherie could not appear to overshadow Tony or look as if she was wearing the pants. The solution to this was to split herself into two people, Mrs. Blair and Miss Booth. Since she married Tony in 1980, she has been living this life for 26 years. Is it any wonder that the cracks in her divided personality are becoming deeper by the day?
When Cherie and Tony flew into the law and politics at the same time, they made a pact: whichever first won a seat in Parliament, the other would support. Tony won the race to the top, and Cherie settled down to fulfill her part of the bargain. But like the coalition forces invading Iraq, they had no idea of what would happen when they got to No. 10. And even then, there was an ominous hint of what was to come. “I started life as the daughter of someone, now I’m the wife of someone, and I’ll probably end up as the mother of someone,” Cherie commented. Could there be a clearer indication of the desire to be someone in her own right?
Is it surprising that she now thinks her
time has come? Cherie Blair is following the Winnie Mandela trajectory, who like her started off as a devoted wife. For decades, Winnie was married to the cause as much as to her husband, and existed politically only as an instrument and extension of his vision, his career. This deformed her life. With the ultimate triumph of the ANC, she could have emerged as an elder stateswoman, graciously guiding the new generation. Instead, she turned into a monster of entitlement. “See how I’ve struggled and suffered?” she seemed to “Now can pay!”
And Cherie has undoubtedly suffered. Like Hillary Clinton, she began by insisting that
CAPLIN WAS APPLYING LIP GLOSS TO CHERIE’S POUTING MOUTH IN A POSE THAT MADE THEM LOOK LIKE A PAIR OF LIPSTICK LESBIANS
she was her own woman with her own style, and expected to be taken as she was. But like Hillary again, the brainy bluestocking faced a rising tide of painful abuse about her hair, her clothes and her thick legs, and had to submit to a makeover in the end. Similarly, Tony’s political advisers live in dread of her showing him up in public, so as Mrs. Blair she is forbidden to say a word. Night and day, she has his handlers shouting in one ear, while the spin doctors trying to restyle her are braying in the other. The contradictory advice she receives can only find an echo in the fissures running through her childhood days. No wonder she gets it wrong.
But Blair or Booth, Cherie is an irresistible target for the British press, who hate her with a passion and lose no chance to pull her down. From the outset she defied their gloopy, antiquated stereotype of the contented little woman and full-time homemaker by developing an awesome international career while mothering four children along the way. And now that she is Britain’s first First Lady, they would do anything to drive her out of public life. There are constant dark mutterings in the press about Tony’s “U.S. presidentialstyle government,” but at least he was elected. To punish Cherie for her presumption, the papers constantly print pictures that make her look loony, dumpy and weird, often forced into some dreadful East-meets-West tunic as the Labour party woos its Asian supporters or her stylists try to camouflage her legs.
It’s quite another story in court. There she can hide her ungainly frame and expanding hindquarters under the dignity of a long black gown. Nor does she need the pricey hairdresser to cope with a bad hair day when she can shelter under the traditional horsehair wig. In her narrow professional arena, she is a success, lecturing internationally on human rights, regularly scoring high-profile victories in Britain and at the European Court. But the bits of her that are not the brilliant barrister are very frangible. So she classically embodies the new phenomenon of feminism: the woman of high achievement who has no judgment at all in her private life.
In Cherie’s case, it is remarkable that a judge and lawyer, let alone one of her achievement, can be so unworldly, both clever and silly at the same time. The woman of world-class sophistication who has rubbed shoulders with kings, and sentenced villains galore, fell for a pair of mountebanks, one of whom was a convicted criminal and known con man.
The story began when bold and bodacious “fitness instructor” Carole Caplin glommed on to Cherie just as Labour party manipulators were putting pressure on her to change.
Caplin, a former topless model and rock band chick, became Cherie’s “lifestyle guru” on a salary of almost $150,000 a year. She advised Cherie on everything under the sun, and had her own pass to 10 Downing Street.
So far, so bad—both Mrs. Blair and Miss Booth in the grip of a dingbat burbling about “toxins” and “channelling” and other New Age gobbledygook. The press officers of both Tony Blair and Cherie, Alistair Campbell and Fiona Millar, were beside themselves, imploring Cherie to put a stop to this. Instead, Caplin got her boyfriend in on the act. Looking for property in Bristol, Cherie commissioned Australian Peter Foster to buy a pakof flats on her behalf. Foster secured the flats for over $1.3 million and boasted that he’d negotiated a $140,000 discount. “You’re a star, Peter!” Cherie crowed. “Your pleasure is my purpose,” the shyster replied.
Foster had been jailed for fraud in the U.S. in 1989, and sentenced to two years in Britain in 1995. Fie was jailed in Australia in 1996 for fraud and threatening witnesses, jailed again in Britain in 2000 and deported, but had no problem getting back into Britain and acting for Cherie. So Miss Booth, Q.C., the judge who sentenced one person to almost two
years in jail for the “very serious crime” of trying to import cannabis, was now in cahoots with a criminal who had done far worse.
Yet still she seemed surprised that there was hell to pay. When it all came to light,
Cherie claimed she had no knowledge of Foster’s past, and insisted she had done nothing wrong. But she was forced into a humiliating public apology on camera, where she wept profusely and admitted that she should have been more circumspect. As a display of ritual remorse and public blubbing along the lines of Richard Nixon or the Australian premier John Hawke, it was excruciating. And the tearful little woman routine sat very uncomfortably alongside Cherie’s persona as an international advocate and judge.
Why did she fall for it? There was more to come: in a photo shoot for Marie Claire, Cherie had herself pictured with Caplin on a bed in Downing Street, Caplin applying lip gloss to Cherie’s pouting mouth in a pose that made them look like lipstick lesbians preparing for a night out. Would Hillary ever let herself be snapped like that? Or Laura Bush? Caplin undoubtedly played into the wound of Cherie’s incomplete womanhood, the classic result of a childhood of being father-
SHE CANT VISIT EVEN A SMALL TOWN WITHOUT MAKING IT KNOWN TO THE LOCAL SHOPS SHE’D GLADLY ACCEPT A DONATION
less and inferior, an ugly duckling and a brainy girl. This has left a legacy of galloping paranoia, and a sense of being beleaguered as hysterical as that of the late Diana, Princess of Wales: if you’re not for me, you’re against me.
In Caplin, an arch-manipulator who seemed to offer protection against the enemy Labour party manipulators, Cherie saw a new best friend. There is an enormous pathos in her vulnerability to this unsavoury pair, like a friendless little girl. Did Tony Blair know the depth of the Caplin friendship? Did he care? He claimed to know nothing about his wife’s purchase of flats costing more than $1 million. Either way he couldn’t help her. She had made her bed and she had to lie in it.
But that has been Cherie’s way all along. Childhood trauma is only sustained by making bad day-to-day decisions in adult life, and Cherie chose to make a fool of herself over Caplin and her slimy beau. She was advised against them on all sides, and her boneheaded defiance even led to the resignation of press officer Millar, formerly Cherie’s guardian, guide and bestest friend. Why does Cherie choose to be silly and wilful, when she has a brain as big as the Ritz?
Because she wants it all. These days, the scale of her needs and greeds alone makes her a sitting duck for the press. Gossip columns report her endless search for freebies as she regularly taps designers great and small. Overseas, she cannot visit even a small Australian town like Noosa, north of Brisbane, without approaching the owners of the local dress shops to indicate that Mrs. Blair would be pleased to accept any donation the proprietor cared to make. Cherie still has a way
to go before she becomes a kleptocrat on the Imelda Marcos scale. But why does she do this? Whatever the reason, it’s all deeply odd.
Odd too, is the jealously protected Blair family life, with even darker rumours floating around, particularly about the deep unhappiness of Cherie’s only daughter, teenaged Kathryn, a couple of years ago. But they still have to support and educate them
EVEN DARKER RUMOURS HAVE FLOATED AROUND, INCLUDING ONE ABOUT THE UNHAPPINESS OF CHERIE’S ONLY DAUGHTER
all. That means money, money, money again, which means urging Tony on to ever-greater things. No wonder Britain’s first First Lady is turning into Lady Macbeth.
So tough luck for Chancellor Gordon Brown, patiently waiting in the wings, but Tony will have to stay on. He has to feed Cherie’s greed for money, and her obsession with wealth and power, and the couple’s foolish decisions on property have left a big hole to fill. No soon-
er had they sold their house in Islington for $1.38 million when Tony became prime minister in 1997, than Britain experienced a boom that put $2.5 million on its value in the next seven years. Having jumped off the London property ladder to live in the PM’s official residence for free, they faced a massive gap between what they could afford and what houses now cost. When they came back into the property market with the purchase of a posh $8.9-million London mansion in 2004, prices stalled, and the house lost $1.4 million in value in the next seven months. The same fate has befallen the illomened pair of flats. They lost $145,000 in value after the purchase.
Meanwhile, Cherie struggles to get a tenant to offset the mortgage on the house, currently running at a deficit of $10,000 a month. Property consistently outperforms shares as the way to make money in England, but only if you get it right. If not, it’s a bottomless pit.
So where is she now? Locked into a malign spiral of increasing vanity and increasing insecurity, she struggles with the ongoing contradictions of her life. But Cherie won’t throw in the towel. In an interview two years ago, asked when Tony might leave the PM’s job, Mrs. Blair gave the dutiful response, “that is really up to the British public.” But then Miss Booth showed her claws. In the next breath, Cherie announced, “I don’t think I’m hankering after a [retirement] bungalow just yet.” Well, she’s still only 51. Watch this space, world. You have been warned. M