Cherie Blair: 'You can't please people who don't really know you'
The Deborah Ross Interview: As a mother, a barrister, a QC, a judge, a campaigner and the wife of a Prime Minister, Cherie Blair has proved herself in many different ways. So why have so many people still got it in for her?
Published 02/08/2008 | 13:10
I meet Cherie Blair at an Italian restaurant round the corner from the family's £3.65m house in Connaught Square, London, just behind Marble Arch.
Naturally, on my way, I cut though the Square to sneak a peek – well, wouldn't you? – and it is a beautiful house; lusciously Georgian, beautifully proportioned and so tall it seems perfectly right that the mortgage is "the size of Mount Snowdon" as so is it. I'm amazed that the roof isn't semi-obscured by mist and clouds. Actually, come on – let's not be bitchy from the off – although I will admit: it's going to be tough. What is it about Cherie that makes people respond in this way?
I arrive at the restaurant first and then it's Cherie. She is well known here. "Hello, darling," she calls to the chap setting up (Daniel, I think). She and Tony came here all the time when the house had the builders in. "We all like pasta and there is always some lovely pasta," she says. Thank God for pasta, I say, the saviour of every mother whose heart just isn't into producing a dinner tonight.
And thank God for pesto, which at least means a choice is always on offer. With or without? She says: "It's Tony's favourite dish, actually. He loves pasta and pesto. Just plain and simple. And olive oil. That's his other passion." As it happens, I like detail – particularly domestic detail – but, after reading her recently published autobiography, Speaking for Myself, I confess that I too am thinking: how much detail is too much detail? I mean, pesto is one thing, but what about the rest?
I wonder if she regrets, now, putting some of these details in, particularly the "sex stuff", which had everyone crying: "Too much information, too much information!" and included the nuances of her menstrual cycle, the birth of Euan ("third-degree tear... blood all over the place") and, most famously, Leo's conception at Balmoral because she had left her "contraceptive equipment" behind out of worry it would be unpacked by a diligent courtier. She says she does not regret including that particular detail, no. "I feel very strongly about contraception even though I know people say that, as a good Catholic girl, I shouldn't. But I disagree because I think one of the keys to women's progression in the 20th century is being able to control their fertility." But contraceptive "equipment".
The mind boggles. What is this "equipment"? A chastity belt with padlock? Or was it, as Paul Merton has suggested, an inflatable priest? She laughs. She has a big, loud, generous, warm laugh. She then says: "I can categorically deny it was an inflatable priest!" Actually, I don't know why Tony couldn't have just slipped a packet of five into his wallet. Christ, if you can take a country to war, how hard can it be?
She is 53, and certainly looks polished, well-groomed. Presumably, her hair has been André-ed (her loyal hairdresser, André Suard, features heavily in the book and once shouted at Alastair Campbell: "Don't you dare talk to Cherie like zat!") and she does have amazingly peachy skin. "I am really lucky with my skin," she says. "It comes from my mum. Fashion tip from Cherie: drink lots of water." She is wearing an Armani ensemble: caramel-coloured silky top, matching silky trousers.
Carole Caplin would approve, I think. Are you still in touch? "Occasionally," she says. Her shoes, in matching caramel, are heels and when I later walk her back to the house, I notice how she struggles in them – galumphing unsteadily, all her weight forward, glossy head bobbing, like a small child who has been at her mother's wardrobe. This is hopelessly endearing; perhaps even as endearing as that hair-do on the day Tony first became PM and she opened their front door. That was some look, Cherie. Part Ken Dodd, part as if you'd combed it with an electric toothbrush. "All I was thinking," she says, "was that Tony was going to kill me." She then says that what upset her most was how the press described her nightie as "cheap and nasty" when it wasn't. "It was from Next and it was all natural fibres!"
I think we all loved her for that look which, aside from anything else, showed she hadn't the faintest idea what she had become. Some would even say that once she cottoned on, that's when the trouble began. Still, I wonder if she now misses being the PM's spouse. When you look at Sarah Brown do you think: Hey, that should be me? Or is it more: Hurrah! Free! Yippee! "I tell you that when Carla Bruni came over on a state visit," she replies, "and she got off that plane looking like the supermodel that she is, it crossed my mind: thank God I'm not the poor sod who is going to have to stand next to her. You are on a hiding to nothing, aren't you?" She laughs again. I wonder if the glamour and excitement of life at Number 10 ever wore off. Does it become: Oh no, the bloody President of Egypt for dinner again and I'll have to talk to his bloody wife? She says: "Oh, but I like Mrs Mubarak." She can be quite literal.
We settle at our table. It's early and the restaurant has opened specially so we can have a private coffee. At some point, Daniel (I think) brings a plate of the most exquisite petits-fours. "Oh, you bad, bad boy," exclaims Cherie. She then adds, hungrily: "But I can't resist..." I say, go for it. No point leaving them for John Prescott; a waste of good food. Did you know? "That he was being sick?" she asks. Yes, I say. "We did have an inkling," she says. She takes a dark-chocolate dipped cherry, and nibbles at it. From hereon in, her lips are all chocolate smeared. Seriously, I've seen two-year-olds come away from chocolate with cleaner faces but, again, it's rather endearing. I am even wondering if, in the rush to vilify Cherie, we've overlooked all that is still engaging. Maybe. But mostly I think she could have been an iconic figure – mother, barrister, QC, judge, campaigner and the wife of a PM – but then somehow blew it.
The book. I ask about her reaction to the reaction, which hasn't been kind, and that is putting it kindly. Indeed, choice epithets include "grubby and pathetic", "a master class in utter hypocrisy" and "meretricious, cynical, tawdry and horrible" while Cherie herself has been described as "a greedy, self serving opportunist whose greatest betrayal is to her own sex." Ouch. How have you coped, Cherie? "It's unrealistic to think you're not affected," she says, "but it's what Hillary Clinton said to me: 'You are not going to please all the people all the time.' And there are some people – perhaps at one time I was that sort of person myself – who, out of principle, might have disliked the wife of the leader of a party simply because you are not of that party." She has said she did not write the book for the money, for the reported £1.5m advance, but to tell "my side of the story" and "put the record straight". But why? I ask. Why do you give a stuff what people now think? Sod them. It's not like you don't have a life otherwise.
She says, in something of a confusing rush: "You can't please people who don't really know you and, you know, I do think that one of the things I do want to do is please the people who matter to me, and please the people that do know me." Whoa, I say. The people who know you, know you. They don't need a book. "True, true..." she says. She then says she wrote it for her children: Euan, Nicky, Kathryn and little Leo, now eight and as scrumptious as hell. "He is so sweet. Little boys are sweet. He'll still come up and say, 'I love you mummy.'"
The others are all-but-grown although, she says, Tony is trying to hang on to Kathryn like mad. "He is hopeless," she says. "With our boys, when they came back with girlfriends, I'd be on my high horse about respecting girls and treating them properly while Tony would be: 'Go for it, young man.' But with Kathryn every boy who crosses the threshold is threatened with execution. I have said to him: 'This is ridiculous, Tony!'" Many, I guess, wish she'd said that to him about invading Iraq, but there you go. And, anyway, it was never her place. She was never a Madame Pompadour, she says. "[If] I want to do politics, I should get elected."
Anyway, she says she wrote Speaking For Myself for her children, so they can appreciate the journey she made from impoverished, working-class Liverpool to Downing Street.
"I wanted the kids to understand where they came from," she says. "I absolutely realise I am not working-class any more – well, part of me still is – but I also know my children never will be." Fair enough, I say. Tell your children, write it down for them, but publish it? And publish it after years of complaining about media intrusion? Cherie, aren't you invading your own privacy here? She gets a bit tetchy at this, then says: "This is the wonderful excuse the media always give, isn't it? They say if you write about anything then we can write about anything. As a lawyer, I happen to know that the law doesn't say that. The law says that everyone is entitled to privacy and you are entitled to make a choice about what you share with people and what you don't, which is why I didn't share what the contraceptive device was and nor am I going to." The chastity belt with padlock, then? Nope, not that either. She would also like to "categorically deny" that she has put up a full-sized poster of the Pope in the house. What, not even over the bed? I ask. That would certainly be contraceptive "equipment" and a half. She says: "Yes. It would be most off-putting!"
True, it has been one hell of a journey from 15 Ferndale Road where Cherie grew up, sharing her grandmother's bed, and where her mother, Gale, had to work in a chip shop for a time to make ends meet. Perhaps the more you have – and Cherie strikes me as someone with quite a hunger for "more" – the more you forget about what you once didn't have. This is Cherie on the state of the Connaught Square house when they first moved in: "It was a building site! They managed to get Leo's and the nanny's bedroom ready, and our bedroom ready, and the front-room office ready, but that was it. In fact, for the first two weeks the only bathroom with water in the house was my bathroom, and that is on the first floor." Are we meant to think "poor Cherie?" Does she think that every other family has 16 bathrooms per household? Weird. Unless it's that power corrupts, and corrupts humility more than anything. I wonder if, after a childhood of doing without, she now imagines she is owed in some way.
Actually, nothing has damaged her reputation more than the perception she is greedy about money, and she does appear to be obsessively interested. Here she is, in the book, raging at Brown for preventing a ministerial salary increase, or complaining about Tony's drop in wages when he first enters politics, or refusing to pay her own airfare for a charitable cause. I ask if, coming from her background, she feels she has to take now, ......... because who knows if it will still be there tomorrow? Do you think you'll always be frightened of not having money? "I think I'll always believe that tomorrow I might not," she says. "You never do know, do you, what is round the corner?"
But isn't the accumulation of wealth and capital somewhat incompatible with socialism? Or am I being old-fashioned here? (Remember, in addition to Connaught Square, they have just purchased John Gielgud's country house for £4m.) She says: "I think it is what you do with your wealth that is important. I don't believe in accumulating money for money's sake. It's one of the reasons I want to do more about helping women. It's why Tony has spent a lot of his time on his Faith Foundation and other things like that. It's what you do with it that is important. I think everybody is entitled to spend at least part of their income on making a nice life for themselves and their children, which is what most people want."
Probably, her father – the renowned "crumpeteer" and actor, Tony Booth – is very important in all this. He was pretty much absent throughout her childhood years and even when he occasionally turned up, he was never really there. She remembers a swimming gala, when he came to watch, but she couldn't get near him because it was at the height of his fame and "everyone swanned around him; I felt non-existent." Perhaps, at some level, she is now determined never to be ignored, to be always the centre of attention in some way. Hence the book. Hence why she couldn't get on with her own life once Tony made it to Number 10. Just a thought, but there is something about her that suggests a frustrated celebrity; that maybe she should have been the important public figure. And it could so easily have been her.
She is the one with the far superior academic CV; the one who graduated in law at the LSE with the highest first in her year, while Tony scraped a third. (As she mentions this in the book, you feel it still rankles.) And she is the one who stood for parliament first (Thanet North, in the 1983 election – Tony was selected only at the last minute for Sedgefield at the same election). What, I ask, if you'd have won that seat? "I think," she says by way of reply, "that we are in our better place. I am a better lawyer than Tony, and he was terribly uncomfortable being the candidate's spouse." She remembers a meeting with her political agent, when the agent said to Tony: "Cherie and I need to discuss the campaign so do you mind helping my wife?" And so: "Tony ended up in the kitchen, washing the dishes. And as he told me later, when the wife asked him: 'Tony, are you interested in politics at all, or are you doing this for Cherie?' he said he wanted to get up and shoot himself." In the end, she's the one who got stuck with the washing up.
What of "Blairism", though? What does she think history will make of it? "That's probably a question for my husband," she says, "but I am immensely proud of him. He came in in 1997 wanting to transform Britain and make it a much more tolerant society. John Major, remember, was still harking back to the 1950s with the cricket and vicar on a bicycle." Blimey, I say. Is that vicar still on that bicycle? "Actually, good for him. Good for the climate," says Cherie, "but Tony wanted Britain to be a modern, multi-cultural, tolerant society. It's why we have the maternity rights we have. It's why we have gay civil partnerships and it's fantastic the way the country has accepted that. I'm also very proud of what he did in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Afghanistan..." And Iraq? "I think it is now very easy to assume that everything was fine and hunky-dory and there were no consequences to doing nothing. That is not what it was. There were difficult choices to be made and I happen to think he made the right decision. It's been difficult and it hasn't always gone well, but the fact that people do have the vote in Iraq and the fact that some people do everything they can to undermine that shows just how important it is." I ask if Labour would be in the trouble it's in now if Blair had stayed. She is no fan of Brown, as the book makes clear, but replies diplomatically with: "There have been ups and downs before this. God knows, we had our ups and downs."
Cherie Blair is a complicated woman; super-smart yet without, perhaps, the chip most people have to tell them when they are being silly or how their behaviour might be perceived. Or even, come to think of it, when it's time to pipe down. But she is also warm, chatty and offers to sign my copy of her book. "Shall I?" she asks. "Sure," I say. "It's bound to be worth something on eBay that way." Actually, she says, "For eBay it's best to have something not personally dedicated." In that case, I say, "Cross my name out and cross it out right now!" We laugh, and then leave, although not before Cherie's nabbed the plate of remaining petits-fours. "Can I take these home?" she asks. "I'll return the plate." She just can't help herself. And that's Cherie for you, I guess.
'Speaking for Myself' is published by Little, Brown, £18.99. To order your copy at a special price (including free postage and packing) call 08700 798897