Cherie Blair

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Gareth Cattermole / Getty

Cherie Blair.

The British prime minister's office had never before seen anything quite like Cherie Blair. A renowned barrister who maintained her career while raising children at No. 10 Downing Street, Blair clashed regularly with the media, who considered her a bad fit for the role. In her surprisingly frank autobiography Speaking for Myself, released in the U.S. this month, Blair traces her rise from a working-class family in Liverpool to Britain's most storied address. She spoke with TIME in New York City about life in the media spotlight, the advice she received from Hillary Clinton and how history will remember her husband.

What were some of the primary misconceptions you wanted to dispel in your book?

The main misconception about the book itself is that it was some sort of political tome. The book is a woman's story. I wanted to write it as though I was talking to my girlfriends, to tell a story not just of my 10 years in Downing Street but of the 50-year journey of a woman who comes from a relatively humble beginning in Liverpool and finds herself living for 10 years in one of the most famous addresses in the world, with this ringside seat on history.

In the book you write that at one point, you decided to "unlock the potential of Downing Street." A prime minister's wife had never before used the office as a platform to pursue important international and humanitarian aims. Did that distract people from your husband's goals?

Well I think Downing Street had also not seen anything like Tony Blair before. When Tony was elected he was 43, the youngest prime minister of the 20th century. We tried to bring up three children, and later a fourth, living in what was essentially a goldfish bowl in the public eye.

As someone who's been through this intense media scrutiny, what advice would you offer the next American First Lady?

When I came in in 1997 I got tremendous support from Hillary Clinton. She gave me some very good advice: you can't please everybody. There will be some people who, whatever you do, will dislike you not for what you are but for what you represent. The most important thing is to be true to yourself and to do the things that you feel comfortable with and that your friends and close family feel comfortable with.

In your book you speak warmly of both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Was it difficult to maintain relationships with political spouses at times when you disapproved of their husbands' actions?

Diplomacy and foreign policy is so much on a personal relationship basis. I not only had the privilege of meeting both Hillary and Laura—both of whom I admire, and both of whom I think did exceptional jobs as first lady—but also to meet Bernadette Chirac, Lyudmila Putin. The thing that always struck me is how exceptional all these women are in their own right.

How important do you consider the upcoming U.S. presidential election to be?

I'm an election groupie. Every election is important and certainly with America still being the world superpower, the whole world is looking at America right now.

What have been the most difficult parts of the transition to life after Downing Street?

One of the strangest things is, I see less of my husband. Because we lived on the premises, and Tony would try every day to come back to put Leo to bed if he could, we were never too far apart. Now as the Middle East envoy, trying to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, he spends about 10 days a month in the Middle East. That's a big difference.

You've said you think that as a prime minister your husband will be judged on par with Churchill. How will history judge his efforts in the Middle East, and what will that verdict depend upon?

Of course, I'm not the most independent assessor. I think he did a fantastic job. But I think history will say the same. I was delighted he took on this Middle East job. It's such an important issue for the world. And Tony has a track record in this because of what he did with the peace process in Northern Ireland. What Tony has is both charm and persistence — he's not a quitter. He goes over there again and again, trying to bring people together and getting them to understand the twin desires — Israel for security, and for the Palestinians, a chance to have a true state of their own.

What are your views on his successor, Gordon Brown?

One thing I know for sure is living in No. 10 has its ups and downs, and over the last year Gordon Brown has had his ups and downs. But he has many great strengths, and he was a great chancellor [of the Exchequer] for 10 years. In recent weeks, I think the public have seen that, in the way he's reacted and taken control —not just in our own country, but across the world — in this world economic crisis.

You talk in the book about how faith is an integral part of your family life. Britain is a bit different than America on this score — it's less accustomed to confessions of faith on the part of political leaders. Did you feel restricted in expressing your beliefs while in office?

It's true that it's not in the British character to speak as much about religion as it is in America. Alistair Campbell, my husband's press secretary at the time, said very famously that "We don't do God." But the truth is on a personal level, Tony and I very much do God, and Tony has always been a person of faith. It was one of the first things that attracted me to him — he was one of the few young men in their twenties who talked to me about issues of faith and religion. He's passionate about how faith brings an extra dimension to our lives and how all the different faiths have something to contribute to the public place.

What are your greatest ambitions going forward?

I was brought up by two remarkable women, my mother and my grandmother. And so I believe in the strength of women, and I've been very conscious for a long time of how we make sure women's voices are heard. It remains a passion of mine. I'm very interested to see how we can harness the goodwill and power of women in America and Europe to help women in the developing world.