‘Vulgar, self-pitying, greedy’ – impressions of Cherie Blair weren’t exactly sympathetic during her time as the Prime Minister’s wife. But two years after she left Downing Street, the human rights lawyer is frank, funny and (whisper it) quite charming
From the moment she enters the room, Cherie Blair manages to wrong-foot me. We are meeting at the chambers in London where she works as a QC specialising in human rights law and, as she shakes hands, she stands way too close, invading my personal space like a one-woman Barbarian horde. Then she says, while still pumping my hand and smiling up at me, ‘I read your columns, including the stuff you sometimes write about me!’
Argh! For the next 10 minutes I cannot concentrate, trying to recall what I might have written about her over the past decade or so. Was it anything rude? Did I refer to her as Cruella de Vil, as journalists lazily do? Compare her smile to a Scalextric track, perhaps? Oh God… You have to admire the tactic, though.
I also find her perky manner disconcerting. By way of preparation I’ve been watching footage of this 54-year-old mother of four being interviewed on television, and she often comes across as edgy and cold. Yet in person there is a lightness and warmth to her, her sentences punctuated with laughter. I’ve been told by the third party who set this interview up that I am not to ask about the expenses scandal or the fate of Gordon Brown – because she won’t be able to comment on either – but it soon becomes obvious that she will answer pretty much any question I ask.
I have also been reading Speaking For Myself, her best-selling memoir. Some reviewers gave her a kicking, calling her vulgar, self-pitying, grasping, cringeworthy and so on. One amusingly suggested she should take out an injunction against herself, or perhaps sue herself for libel. But this is to be expected. Few people have been as divisive and unpopular in recent years as Cherie Blair. A Radio 4 poll even voted her the person listeners would most like to see deported.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on her. My devoutly Catholic mother-in-law, for example, is not keen, mainly because Cherie claims to be devoutly Catholic, too, despite the very non-Catholic revelation in her book that she used contraception, or rather forgot her ‘contraceptive equipment’ when they visited Balmoral (and lo, unto them, a baby was born nine months later).
My mother isn’t that keen either, come to think of it. Like many people who used to ride to hounds – including the Princess Royal – she blames Mrs Blair for the hunting ban, or at least for forcing her husband’s hand on the issue (Mrs B, as she was known in Downing Street, claims this wasn’t the case, by the way).
Being neither a Catholic nor a subscriber to Horse & Hound, I read her memoirs with an open mind and was surprised by how funny they were. She has fine comic timing and does a nice line in self-deprecation, describing herself as looking like ‘the mad woman from the attic’, for example, in that photograph where she opened the door in her nightie – ‘with my hair like a bird’s nest, and bleary-eyed’. And her account of how Tony proposed to her while she was on her knees cleaning a loo is hilarious. ‘I know,’ she says when I mention this. ‘So romantic. Him standing, me on my knees scrubbing the toilet, then after that, the wretched man said: “Let’s not tell anyone yet, let’s keep it to ourselves!”‘
Plenty of reviewers loved the book though and, on the cover of the paperback, published this month, there is a quote that reads: ‘Charming, frank and funny.’ And that is about right.
We are meeting on the Thursday of the European elections. Downing Street is in turmoil. Gordon Brown is a gibbering wreck. There is speculation he might not survive until the weekend. On a day like today, I suggest, when the body politic is pumping with adrenaline, she must miss being at the heart of things. ‘Not really. Been there, done that, got the scars on my back. It’s quite nice being a spectator again, rather than the subject of a spectator sport.’
Presumably she doesn’t miss things like the press scrutiny of her finances – the £100,000 fee she was paid for a lecture tour of Australia in 2005, on behalf of a charity, for example. ‘Rather naively, I thought because it raised $250,000 for charity it was a good thing, but the press didn’t think so. I’ll never do that again. You learn by your mistakes.’
Did she consider paying her fee back? ‘No, I didn’t. The caterer was paid. The comic was paid. I was paid. Together we made a lot of money for the charity. In England I speak all the time for charities without asking for a fee. But I had gone all the way over to Australia and spent a week away from my children and my work, whereas I wouldn’t have to do that for a speaking engagement in Manchester.’
Long before the current expenses scandal, Cherie Blair was involved in an expenses dust up of her own: whether she should pay for André, her personal hairdresser, out of her own money, or whether he was a legitimate government expense. ‘In the end I did pay for him, but I couldn’t have done my duty as the wife of the PM without him or someone like him.’
So, can she empathise with MPs who feel their expenses are justified? ‘I think – what can I say about the expenses row? – not much other than I am glad I am no longer involved in that world. There is now an impression that MPs are out for what they can get, which usually isn’t the case. Our MPs are not crooks and it is wrong that people should think they are. I think there is a real danger now of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’
The word greedy is often applied to her; is that fair? ‘No, because personally I don’t think I am all that greedy. Like everyone, I am formed by my background and mine was, well, we didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t live in a cardboard box but I did live in a place where at the end of the week the money was gone.’ That was in Crosby, Liverpool. Her father, the hard-drinking, serially adulterous actor Tony Booth, was absent for most of her formative years, and she was raised by her grandmother and mother, a RADA-trained actress who worked in a fish and chip shop to make ends meet.
‘That must have affected my own anxieties about money, about paying the bills. We knew that when we left Number 10 we had no house to move to because we had sold ours in 1997. Sometimes I used to say to Tony, “We could be out of here tomorrow and it could be me, you and four children with nowhere to go”.’
Now they have bought a house in London (for which they paid £3.5m) and another in Buckinghamshire (£5.75m). Tony Blair has consultancies with investment banks thought to be worth £2.5m and he is also thought to have earned around £2m from speaking engagements, as well as £4.6m for a book deal. In addition to her salary as a QC, Cherie Blair was reportedly paid around £1m for her book. Are all her money worries over now? ‘I’m in a fortunate position now, but do I still worry in the back of my mind that it could all be gone tomorrow? Yes.’
She was the original WAG (Women Against Gordon) and complained about the way he was constantly ‘rattling the keys’ to Number 10. Does she now think that her former neighbour should have been careful what he wished for? She laughs. ‘There is this whole image about my relationship with Gordon being… Look, he has many good qualities and it was not wrong of him to have wanted to be prime minister – most politicians do, and why shouldn’t they? It’s just that as Tony’s wife, when Gordon’s ambition got… when he became impatient, I was on Tony’s side.’
Hence Tony Blair’s quote that there was no danger of his wife running off with the man next door? ‘Yes, I think that was quite observant of him.’ And the reason why, when Gordon said in his conference speech that it had been a privilege to work with Tony, she said: ‘That’s a lie’? ‘I didn’t say that, I didn’t! The trouble is, everyone thinks I might have said it.’ But she did think it? ‘I might have thought it, but even I’m not so stupid as to say it.’
Well if she didn’t say it then, she has now. We are on the subject of her gaffes and they seem odd for someone with an alpha brain. Upon leaving school, she studied law at the LSE, going on to gain the highest bar examination marks of any student in the country in her year. There are, it seems, two Cheries; the smart lawyer and the not-so-smart embarrassing politician’s wife. They even have different names – Cherie Booth and Cherie Blair.
She does indeed talk of a disjunction between her life as a high-flying QC, a world in which she feels comfortable and in control, and her former life as a prime minster’s wife, less sure of herself, more prone to gaffes. ‘The thing is, I knew the decisions I was making in the legal world would only affect me. In the political world, if I made a gaffe Tony took the consequences, and it is always worse to hurt the ones you love than hurt yourself.’
Is it true he would sometimes bury his head in his hands and say, ‘For goodness’ sake woman!’ ‘He does say that, you know, quite a lot. But he kind of only half means it. He’ll have a rant and get it out of his system. He is not one to hold grudges. We’re both optimists.’ She reckons one of the reasons
he loves her is that she is so unpredictable. ‘I hope so, otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck around for
Any advice for Sarah Brown? ‘Be there for your husband. But she doesn’t need my advice. She’s done a lot better than me in the press.’
And Samantha Cameron? ‘Exactly the same. In the end, it’s about having someone to share it with, which Ted Heath didn’t have. Even now Margaret Thatcher gets confused and looks for Denis.’ She describes her tempestuous relationship with Alastair Campbell as a ‘double act’. He went ballistic over what became known as ‘Cheriegate’, the time she bought two flats in Bristol at a discount, with the help of the fraudster Peter Foster.
‘Yes, that was not one of the high points of our relationship. I’m very fond of Alastair. He was extraordinarily loyal to Tony. But he was slightly prone to barging in without knocking. And I think he felt the pressure towards the end, especially when he became part of the story. What he was trying to protect me from was what he fell victim to himself.’
Does she now resent the way Campbell bullied her into doing her emotional mea culpa speech about Cheriegate on the evening news? ‘I don’t… I don’t think I was bullied. The trouble was, Tony had insisted I tell him what had happened in terms of my contact with Peter Foster and he would pass on what I said to Alastair… Today Tony has a Blackberry but when he was PM he… He had a computer on his desk but never turned it on. So when I said I’d had an email from Foster, it didn’t really mean much to him.
When we left Downing Street in 2007, I said to Tony: “We’re going to sit down and I’m going to show you how to use a Blackberry.” And now the kids say, “Mum, he’s never off that ruddy thing, why did you teach him how to use it?” ‘
Speaking of equipment, I tell her my Catholic mother-in-law was somewhat surprised by her admission that she used contraception. ‘I suppose it was the Catholic in me that meant I couldn’t bring myself to go into any more detail.’
But surely the term raised more questions than it answered. ‘Some people have speculated that it might have been a wooden shelf to put between us in bed… But part of me said that because, though I like to think of myself as a good Catholic, I couldn’t have had the career I had without contraception. The fact is, even in Spain, France and Italy there must be a lot of Catholics who bend the rules.’
So is she going to solve the mystery of what the equipment was? ‘Nooo! Certainly not. You can probably guess anyway.’ A cap? She covers her ears and laughs. ‘I’m not saying anything!’
Here is another mystery. As a couple, their friendship with the Clintons is easy to understand, all four are left-leaning lawyers. But the Bushes? What was that about? ‘It’s not really that baffling because one of the main job descriptions of the British prime minster is to get on with the American president. Whatever the domestic policies, on foreign policy Tony and George saw eye to eye. That said, I talked about policy and politics with the Clintons in a way I never did with George and Laura. Most of the time I talked to the Bushes about the things we did have in common, like having children the same age. We have stayed friendly with them.’
OK. Time to authenticate some tall tales. Is it true that when Bill Clinton came to Chequers she was worried he would try and get off with Carole Caplin – the masseuse, one time soft porn model and New Age ‘therapist’ – who was walking around in her stretched leotard? Another laugh. ‘I just think Bill is one of those men who appreciated… feminine company.’
Why did she trust Caplin when she was so obviously flaky, what with her crystals and her ‘toxin showers’ and everything? ‘I don’t think my judgement… I shouldn’t have bought those flats [Foster was Caplin’s boyfriend] because even to this day they are not worth what the Daily Mail claimed they were worth.’
What does she make of Lord Levy’s insinuation in his memoirs that Tony was the father of Carole’s baby? ‘I think that’s a load of old rubbish, frankly.’
Is it true that Cherie and Tony rolled round in mud as part of a rebirthing ritual while on holiday in Mexico? ‘That’s a load of old rubbish, too.’ Really? ‘It wasn’t rebirthing. We went to Mexico and we thought we would try some treatments and one of them was the Mayan equivalent of the sauna.’
And it involved mud? ‘No, actually. Did it involve mud? I can’t remember. Don’t think so. Although you get all sorts of things these days, don’t you. Seaweed wraps and so on. I don’t think that one was about mud, particularly.’
Is it true that her husband has a pact with the Queen never to watch the film The Queen? ‘That’s my understanding. I don’t know whether the Queen has watched it but I’m pretty sure Tony hasn’t. I watched it on my own on a plane. My daughter Kathryn was miffed because they didn’t get a red-haired actress to play her. And I wish I was as thin as the actress who played me. And I hate Michael Sheen as Tony. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Tony is six foot and quite broad shouldered and Michael isn’t six foot and isn’t strapping and doesn’t have that physical presence.’
Is Mrs Blair a monarchist? ‘I am a great fan of the Queen. I miss her.’ That was not what I asked. Is she a monarchist? A knowing smile. ‘I’m a huge fan of the Queen.’
When she left Downing Street she shouted at the waiting press: ‘I won’t miss you!’ She describes in her book how her husband cringed, telling her through clenched teeth: ‘For God’s sake, you’re supposed to be dignified, you’re supposed to be gracious.’ Obviously she doesn’t miss the press, but what about Number 10?
‘The big difference with our life today is that Tony is constantly travelling to the Middle East and America. The irony is that we saw more of him when he was PM. Leo would pop down and see him, sometimes he would pop up for lunch. But, you know, today Tony is working at home so we just had lunch together.’
Their eldest two children have graduated from Bristol and Oxford and are now working. Kathryn is around the corner from here at King’s College, London, and has just finished her second year exams. Leo is eight and Mrs Blair now says she is aware of being one of the oldest mothers in the playground. ‘Sometimes I think I’m older than some of the grandmothers, frankly.’
Time to go. Cherie Blair has, indeed, been charming, frank and funny. I can only think it is to do with the freedom of being out of what she calls the goldfish bowl. Her happiness must also be a little to do with Gordon Brown’s unhappiness. She would have to be inhuman, I say, not to allow herself a chuckle about the pickle Gordon has got himself in.
‘Well you forget that I am a Labour Party animal. I joined the party at 16. We have our Labour poster out today. This is the government that I think deserves to be re-elected. So there is not much joy in seeing the turmoil at the moment.’ ‘Not much’. She is a lawyer who chooses her words carefully.
She stands close again to shake hands and, as she is leaving, turns and asks me a question. ‘Your Catholic mother-in-law doesn’t approve of contraception, but what about your Catholic wife?’ Damn she’s good. Wrong-footed again.