Superwoman

Cherie: the perfect life of Mrs Blair

Linda McDougall <em>Politico's, 286pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 19

I hold Cherie Blair responsible for a lot - for a couple of years, in fact, of misery and exhaustion. Let me explain. I met Cherie at a dinner party when I was pregnant with my first child. Lumpy and weary, I listened in awe to the radiant Cherie explain how her third child was due in just a week's time, but she was still working full-time at the Bar, and looking after her two small children, and supporting her husband - even then a rising politician - by visiting the constituency each weekend . . . and also, clearly, finding the energy to be the life and soul of the dinner party.

Hah, I thought, it's going to be easy once my baby is actually born . . . but it wasn't. Like so many other mere mortals, I struggled, for the first few years of motherhood, both to hold down my job and to keep my sanity. I thought of Cherie - had another. Still no better. I thought of Cherie - had a third. Disaster! I was almost in the loony-bin. What I hadn't realised is that Cherie is pretty near perfect. This book uses "perfect" ironically. But as a juggler, successfully avoiding life's calamities, Cherie almost is just that.

The big question is how she does it - a question that Linda McDougall, also the wife of a politician (the Labour MP Austin Mitchell), struggles to answer. McDougall's task has not been easy, because the only certainty about Cherie, apart from her perfection, is her deeply guarded privacy. All her close friends and colleagues, both past and present, were warned against co-operating with this biography. Nevertheless, through intense digging and detailed study of anything that has been published about Cherie, McDougall draws a picture of the woman behind the silent smile, which those of us who knew her BG (Before Government) would recognise.

Cherie is, for a start, immensely bright and hard-working; she always came top in exams, from St Edmund's junior school in Liverpool, through the London School of Economics, to the Bar finals. McDougall explains Cherie's childhood: her father, Tony Booth, left when Cherie was nine, and started a life of high-profile drinking and philandering that caused Cherie intense embarrassment. McDougall traces Cherie's passionate desire for privacy back to those early schooldays when her father's escapades - giving Cherie five half-sisters by three different women - achieved for her family a notoriety they never sought. Cherie's reaction to all this was quietly and determinedly to get on with life, prompting her mother, Gale, to remark that Cherie had never given her a minute's worry. The privacy Cherie was denied as a child is something she is clearly determined to safeguard for her own children.

Today, Cherie's strong sense of self-discipline shines through her regular visits to the gym, cups of cheerless herbal tea and never-one-too-many glasses of wine. Cherie can be fun, shaking with giggles, but I doubt that she's ever been riotous. She also has a strong sense of self-preservation: it's quite true that, with the first three children at least, Tony was the one who took the night shift. Cherie quite simply didn't wake up.

Considering she has such a New Man for a husband, and strong feminist beliefs, it is surprising - no, amazing - that Cherie, the leftish, passionately pro-European political woman in her own right, has fallen into the role of "surrendered wife". Well, not literally, but all that gooey holding hands with Tony and just smiling and not saying anything - well, it's not what we expected, is it? McDougall rails against it all, too - wishing that Cherie would make herself a role model for modern women by showing that there can be equality in marriages and careers.

Yet there is a reason for this reticence, and it can be summed up in two words: Hillary Clinton. Like Cherie, she has strong opinions and her own life. But in the United States, this has been a disaster. When you look at what the American press (much less intrusive than our own) has thrown at Hillary, you have to agree with Cherie's tigress of a gatekeeper, Fiona Millar: "Why should she be more public? What's in it for her? You tell me."

Quite right. It may be, however, that we hear more about Cherie in the future. McDougall's book raises the question of an interesting deal: not between Blair and Gordon Brown over the leadership, but between Tony and Cherie over her turn, one day, to be at the top of her chosen profession. It's certainly something that Brown, who has never been close to Cherie, must be hoping for. I don't know. Surely the arrival of a fourth child when both parents are in their late forties must have put paid to that ambition? It would have done for ordinary mortals. But then, as I say, Cherie is almost superhuman.

Jackie Ashley is the New Statesman's political editor