X Close

Cherie Blair’s class war Should we feel sympathy for New Labour's First Lady?

Mortified. Credit: Mathieu Polak/Sygma/Getty

Mortified. Credit: Mathieu Polak/Sygma/Getty


April 25, 2022   6 mins

It started on the morning after Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997. His wife, Cherie Booth, was photographed answering the door to a delivery of flowers at their home in north London. She was still in her nightie and looked half asleep, having arrived home from Labour’s victory party on the South Bank just a couple of hours earlier. Any thought of staying in their house in Islington vanished, she said later, and the couple moved to Number 10 that weekend.

It is hard to recall now, when we are used to seeing women with careers and children in Downing Street, what a break with tradition Booth represented. Blair replaced John Major, the quintessential grey man, whose wife Norma was described on the prime minister’s official website as providing ‘sterling support’ to her husband. As for the wives of previous Labour prime ministers, all been born before or during the First World War. The world had changed radically between the birth of Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, in 1916 and Cherie Booth in 1954, and nowhere more so than in relation to the role of women.

Booth is a baby boomer, belonging to the post-war generation that challenged class barriers, sent millions of working-class kids to university for the first time and embraced feminism. She was already a QC when she moved into Number 10 and it soon became clear that the Downing Street press operation was struggling to handle media interest; at one low point, it even issued a press release explaining Booth’s recent weight loss. Every aspect of her appearance was commented on, an affront to any woman who wanted to be known for her professional achievements. But Booth seemed particularly uncomfortable in her own skin.

I knew Booth slightly, having met her and Tony Blair at a dinner party when we all lived in Hackney a few years earlier. Blair had not yet become party leader but he was on the shadow front bench and one of Labour’s rising stars. Booth was born in Lancashire, one of actor Tony Booth’s eight children by five different women; he left her mother, Gale Smith, when his daughter was eight. She has talked about the struggle her mother faced, bringing up two children on her own in Sefton, just north of Liverpool. The class difference between Booth and Blair struck me at once; he displayed the easy charm of a public schoolboy but she was less at ease, almost as though she expected to have to deflect criticism. I also thought she was in the difficult position of being married to a man who would be perceived by much of the world as the more attractive of the couple.

The next day, I got a call from our mutual friend: “Tony wanted you to know that everything he said last night was off the record.” I said it had been an unmemorable evening, with the exception of a slightly baffling conversation about how many members of the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood were gay. Years later, one of the other guests remarked that she had never met Blair or Booth when she lived in Hackney. She was astonished when I reminded her that she had once spent an entire evening with them.

I ran into Booth shortly before the 1997 election at a party thrown by my then publisher. There was a buzz in the room, created by the knowledge that the guest of honour was married to the man who was about to become prime minister. But the contradictions were already evident; to my generation of feminists, being known as someone’s wife was not something to celebrate. The discomfort I felt was underscored when I had a short conversation with Booth, who knew I now lived in west London. She mentioned Chiswick Women’s Aid, the famous refuge founded by Erin Pizzey, and suggested I should visit the residents. “They’d love a visit from a local author,” she told me. I winced, feeling like a character in a Jane Austen novel.

When the doorstep photo was published the weekend after the election, Booth hated it. Almost 20 years later, in 2015, she told the Guardian that “I look back at this picture and feel mortified”, even though other people thought it was “very human”. “I was very upset when the press said I was wearing some sort of nylon thing; it was a high-quality, cotton nightie from Next and I bought it especially for the campaign
 It was a lot better than you might expect from a mother of three.”

Booth’s defensiveness is hard to understand. She was 42 at the time the photo was taken and looked girlishly young, but her anxieties about class are evident in the comment about what she was wearing (definitely notnylon). Her fear that the snap would damage her might seem paranoid, were it not for an extraordinary column written years later by the journalist Liz Jones. In 2019, Jones recalled the reaction in an unnamed newspaper office when the photo “was slapped on the editor’s desk”. ‘[Booth] was in a Next cotton nightie, hair a bird’s nest,’ Jones wrote. “She was suddenly no longer Superwoman, but Everywoman: fallible. I remember the glee in the office: a fissure! Bad news always sells better than good. We discussed headlines, ways to humiliate her further; we even sent a pretty intern round with another bouquet.”

The collision between Booth’s deep-seated insecurity and the reflexive misogyny of some sections of the media goes some way to explaining the rough time she had in Downing Street. She eventually acquired a lifestyle guru, Carole Caplin, a move that backfired and created excruciating headlines. A photograph of Caplin applying Booth’s lipstick on the marital bed at Number 10 raised questions about her judgement.

Sometimes Booth’s reaction was to lash out, but she also had a habit of over-sharing. Jaws dropped when she revealed in her autobiography that she had become pregnant with her fourth child, Leo, during a visit to the Queen at Balmoral in 1999 because she had left her “contraceptive equipment” at home. The omission was caused by “sheer embarrassment”, she said, after the staff unpacked the contents of her toilet bag the previous year. It was an astonishing admission from a woman who got a first at LSE, yet was so embarrassed around servants that she was willing to risk an accidental pregnancy rather than being caught with contraception in her luggage.

Anxieties about class and money often go hand-in-hand. One of the most damaging criticisms of Booth was that she was obsessed with money, much more so than other adults with working-class backgrounds. I once ran into her at a reception in the Speaker’s House in Parliament, where she asked what I had been writing recently. I told her I had recently interviewed the designer Vivienne Westwood for The Times. “You should wear her clothes,” I suggested. “They suit curvy women.” It was a throwaway remark but Booth’s response took my breath away: “How can you afford Vivienne Westwood?” she demanded.

“It always struck me that she was insecure,” one of Blair’s former ministers told the Guardian after the couple left Downing Street. “And that is down to her background. Everything flows from that: the need for money.” Perhaps this explains why Blair, five years into his premiership, was forced to deal with embarrassing questions about Booth’s relationship with a financial advisor, Peter Foster, who happened to be a convicted fraudster as well as Caplin’s boyfriend. Booth was accused of accepting Foster’s help to get a discount on two flats in Bristol, where the couple’s eldest son Euan was at university. Number 10 initially denied the story, but the Daily Mail published emails between Booth and Foster in which she called him “a star” after he managed to reduce the price of the flats.

Booth made a tearful apology, but the episode earned her a reputation as greedy, which was reinforced the following year when a department store in Australia invited her to “take a few gifts”. The Mirror reported that Booth helped herself to 68 items, enough to fill five boxes, and left staff at the Melbourne store open-mouthed. It was as if she had little or no capacity to predict how her behaviour would appear, and the excuse of her impoverished childhood had begun to wear thin.

Of course, the role of prime minister’s wife was never going to be easy for an ambitious woman from a generation shaped by radical ideas, including feminism. Booth inherited an unofficial position that already felt like an anachronism, something that was underlined when she was told by Downing Street that she would have to appear on official documents as Cherie Blair QC.

And yet sympathy for her, particularly over her unfair treatment by the media, must be tempered with an acknowledgment that she made some very unwise decisions, remaining ungracious to the end. “I won’t miss you lot,” she called out to reporters as the couple left Downing Street for the last time in 2007. It was an undignified exit, suggesting that Booth had never become accustomed to the scrutiny that comes with being the prime minister’s wife.

Perhaps she made a mistake, being bounced into moving to Downing Street in May 1997 before she had had time to consider the consequences, but a more confident woman would not have cared. Booth’s reaction to the doorstep photo signalled a vulnerability that some sections of the press seized upon, creating a conflict that lasted for as long as Blair was in power. Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron were not always happy with the media but there hasn’t been such a polarising spouse in Number 10 until Carrie Johnson. Perhaps the kindest thing history could say about Booth is that she struggled to cope with a role she almost certainly never wanted.


Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.

polblonde

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

22 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

“Should we feel any sympathy for New Labour’s First Lady?”
Nope. The sub heading (which may not have been the author’s) reveals a modern mindset which assumes people are bundled along by their unreflective choices and therefore victims worthy of sympathy.
Older generations are fonder of older sayings, like “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

I notice a tendency for main stream columnists to resort to Unherd. I presume that this is because their own organs are failing. As I am not willing to subscribe to the newspapers that they work for, why do they presume that I will pay to read them here? Perhaps “Unherd” should be renamed “Itsmeagain”

Last edited 2 years ago by polidori redux
J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Unherd has changed for the worse. Its edge is disappearing and it increasingly looks like yet another mainstream journal of pop culture. So sad. I used to be its number one fan.

Stuart
Stuart
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I was thinking that myself! I think I prefer the online “Spiked” as it has the edge.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I don’t know about Joan Smith, but some of them seem to be refugees from wokified legacy media.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Indeed.
If Suzanne Moore had abandoned The Guardian before her colleagues turned on her, I wouldn’t regard her with such scorn.

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

What’s this piece of bitchy gossip doing on UnHerd?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Another mean girl piece. And these writers have the gall to squeeze in “misogyny” every single time.

James Elvidge
James Elvidge
2 years ago

No wonder CBQC gave the impression that she was uncomfortable fraternising with the media class when confronted with such snobbery that drips from this article. ‘Wincing’ being asked to go and speak to a local charity – how uncouth!

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

Have I woken up in 1997? How is this relevant now? At risk of being called churlish for pointing it out, the First Lady of this country is Her Majesty the Queen, no matter how differently New Labour or anyone else desire it to be otherwise.

Keith J
Keith J
2 years ago

Excusing someone’s poor decisions or behaviour because of the class they were born into is just condescending.

Lotus Eatet
Lotus Eatet
2 years ago

Rather worrying that a woman of such repeated poor judgement is a QC and sits in judgement upon others.

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago

Gosh somebody got a hatchet for their Birthday.

Lloyd Evans
Lloyd Evans
2 years ago

‘Cherie Blair QC’, as suggested by Downing St, was rejected by Cherie who pointed out that she used her maiden name in her legal career and that no barrister named ‘Cherie Blair’ was licensed to practise at the Bar. She won that one. And when Alistair Campbell ordered her to repay shops for dresses she’d bought at a discount she sent him packing. ‘Show me the law that says I must.’ No answer to that.

Don Holden
Don Holden
2 years ago

I find it exceedingly hard to summon up any sympathy for a person who chose the legal profession as a career, it seems to be first choice of self-obsessed, entitled charlatans and hasn’t she done well at it !

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Holden

She married another charlatan.
You have to admit that she knew her strengths

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 years ago

‘The Mirror reported that Booth helped herself to 68 items, enough to fill five boxes, and left staff at the Melbourne store open-mouthed’
I wonder if there isn’t another side to this story – maybe the owner of the shop kept encouraging her to take more or something. Maybe it’s true but it seems an odd thing to do by someone so much in the public eye st the time

G H
G H
2 years ago

This sort of article is not why I subscribe to Unherd.

Last edited 2 years ago by G H
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

No mention of how Cherie Booth became Cherie Blair in the US, when she went to cash in their cheque for selling out British foreign policy.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago

fascinating stuff. The author’s fierce ‘radical feminism’ shines through as she makes a few pointlessly catty remarks about former PM’s wife. That’s one problem with ‘radical feminism’ I suppose – it distracts from the extent that women are demeaned by intra-sex conflict/ competition/ jealousy, rather than by men

Geoff Coles
Geoff Coles
2 years ago

Booth is classless, simply off the scale!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Kentucky Fried Chicken have a new dish… no breast, huge thighs and two left wings… its called a Cherie….