There’s a rebellious streak in Cherie Blair. It did not come through overtly in a tête-à-tête as the former First Lady relaxed in the plush Park Hotel in Delhi. I met her in 2008, just after she had released her memoirs. Her husband had stepped down as the British prime minister more than a year before. I was reminded of my chat with her when I was watching The Queen starring the distinguished Dame Helen Mirren, which documents Cherie’s hostility to the monarchy.
As the conversation carried forward, it became apparent that there was something in her that makes her strive to be not just Mrs Blair, an ‘appendage’ to her famous husband.
Put it down to her Liverpool roots or her having been brought up in a household of strong women. But she openly acknowledges that she’s a pretty outspoken person. Tony Blair, in fact, calls her his ‘bolshie Scouser’ referring to her north-west England upbringing. And Cherie makes no apologies for it in her autobiography, recently released by Hachette India.
She lucidly tells the story of a 50-year-old journey in a 400-odd pager titled Speaking for Myself. The book itself came as a surprise to some given that she was never known for doling out interviews by the dozen.
“I do believe that a public figure should have a private life. From the time when the Labour Party was in Oppo-sition, it was decided that I should not talk to the press. That however didn’t stop the press from writing about me. And out of that vacuum emerged a persona,” said Cherie. That persona happened to be arrogant and aloof.
“When I would go around meeting people, they would express astonishment on two counts. Firstly this that I looked much better than in my published photographs and secondly, that I was not at all the person I was portrayed as to be,” smiled the lady who was turned out impeccably, in a blush pink suit. “So when I left Downing Street, it was a chance to speak for myself. To tell the story as it was.”
The fact that discretion is not her strong point and that her relationship with the press of her country has been nothing less than rocky comes through in an anecdote that’s right at the beginning of the book. Leaving No.10 for the last time a year ago, she called out to the press before slipping into a government car: “Bye, I won’t miss you.” The reaction to it from her husband came thus: “You can’t resist it, can you?” Tony said through clenched teeth as the door closed behind me. ‘For God’s sake, you’re supposed to be dignified, you’re supposed to be gracious’.”
The book abounds in personal details — how Tony proposed, one holiday in 1979, to Cherie while she was on her knees cleaning the toilet of a Tuscan villa they were staying; stories of her contraceptives and conceptions; and her run-in with various personalities including the furore that resulted when her friend Carole Caplin’s convicted conman boyfriend claimed to be involved in her purchase of two flats in Bristol.
So it turns out it to be exactly as she intended it to be — a personal memoir. She noted: “It is indeed my book, a woman’s book. It is for Tony to write a political memoir.” What with its deemed controversial contents, Speaking for Myself has already shot to the bestseller lists in the UK and is flying off the racks of bookshops in India. She also has two more books to her credit — one on the spouses of the former prime ministers of England called The Goldfish Bowl and another that’s a legal textbook.
Cherie’s daily life revolves around the legal world. She’s a high-flying barrister and, in fact, when she returned home that year, she pointed out that she was looking forward to sitting as a judge for a week in a Crown Court and trying criminal cases apart from mulling on what to do about Christmas dinner.
In legal court circles Mrs Blair is better known as Cherie Booth QC (Queen’s Counsel). She’s a part of the high-profile Matrix Chambers, which she set up in 2000 along with several other prominent barristers. Cherie specialises in employment, discrimination and public law cases, besides being a pioneer of women’s causes (she is into charities for improving women’s health, ensuring education for girls and promoting women entrepreneurs).
Her enthusiasm for women’s causes can be traced to her experience at the bar where her gender was occasionally an obstacle and further back to being raised by a hard-working single mother and a quirky grandmother. Her famous actor father, Tony Booth, had left the family early on. She points out: “I was the first in my family to go to university, so I know what it feels like to be lonely. But I have had the opportunity of using my education.”
At the same time, she confesses to having an advantage — her husband’s name. “I have access to the people across the world. Through the years spent in No.10 and the time that I have travelled around, I have seen the good things and the bad things.”
She adds: “What has made a difference to women like me is economic independence. To able to make your money and keep it is a great thing. It is what leads to true partnership between a man and a woman.”
Would she ever emulate her counterpart across the Atlantic — Hillary Clinton — and aim to be the prime minister? She laughed and said: “I was always interested in politics. I will always be. I have no regrets about not being the first woman Prime Minister. I have had a ringside view of history living in No. 10. How lucky does one get?”