She's the former First Lady who always seemed too vivid and spiky for a supporting role. Her fans laud her for refusing to subsume her identity to her husband's political ambitions. Her critics and there have been many accuse her of endangering the electoral chances of the left-leaning party she's championed all her life. Nope, not Hillary Clinton. The target of these barbs is Clinton's one-time counterpart from across the Atlantic, Cherie Blair: wife of Tony, mother of four, human rights lawyer, and, it now emerges, astonishingly frank autobiographer. Her book, Speaking for Myself, appears on May 15. Perceptions of life behind the shiny black door of 10 Downing Street will never be the same.
International intrigues, encounters with royalty, topless models, sex in a castle: subjects covered in the few extracts already published in the British press read more like the ingredients of a lightweight thriller than a serious political memoir. Yet Cherie Blair's book has already had a heavy impact on Gordon Brown, her husband's successor as Prime Minister. Struggling to reassert his authority after his Labour Party was savaged in municipal elections this month, and eager to avoid another rout in a byelection on May 22, Brown urgently needs to convince the public and his own party that he has the right qualities to lead Britain.
Cherie was never going to be a cheerleader for Brown, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer was her immediate neighbor in Downing Street. Her antipathy towards her husband's closest colleague and rival was such an open secret that Blair once joked about it in a speech to the Labour conference. "At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door," he deadpanned.
Now Cherie gives her side of the story. Her "problem with Gordon," she says, was that he was hungry for power and kept "rattling the keys" of Downing Street over Blair's head. Her description echoes and amplifies similarly damaging images of Brown that have just emerged in two other new autobiographies by Westminster insiders. John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister during the Blair years, paints Brown as a "frustrating, annoying, bewildering and prickly" colleague who could "go off like a bloody volcano." Lord Levy, the former Labour fund raiser, made a claim, immediately disputed by Blair's office, that Blair doubted Brown would be able to beat the telegenic young Conservative leader, David Cameron.
Sources close to Cherie say she pulled her punches to avoid damage to Brown. In an e-mail, one such source says the book "was never intended to be a get-back-at-GB exercise there was SO much more she could have said if she had wanted to do that!" That raises the question of how damning the missing material must be. Cherie "started writing this book a year ago and wasn't to know then that [Brown] would be up against the barrage of criticism he is now," writes the source.
Cherie might be expected to empathize with Brown's current travails. After all, she endured years of press sniping for her dress sense (those white pixie boots!) and her choice of friends (a newspaper printed topless photos of Cherie's confidante Carole Caplin on the day of a key Blair speech). The Blairs struggled to protect the privacy of their family life and once got an injunction to prevent a former nanny from penning a memoir. "Goodbye. I don't think we'll miss you," Cherie told the waiting press corps as the Blairs said farewell to Downing Street last June. Now, by publishing her autobiography, she's invited fresh and closer scrutiny. She took the risk, says the source, because she wanted "to tell her version of the reality behind the many myths and try to correct the distorted representation of her that evolved from years of negative press ... Her book is a love story and a journey which the reader travels on with her."
To judge from the extracts already in the public domain, she'll certainly win props for her fearlessness. Here she is, introducing the late Princess Margaret to a gay cabinet minister and his partner. "'Have you met Chris Smith, our Culture Secretary, Ma'am?' I asked. She peered at him. 'And this is his partner,' I continued. 'Partner for what?' I took a breath. 'Sex, Ma'am.'"
Sex: it's a topic most political memoirists skate around. Not so Cherie, who even discusses the conception of her fourth child, Leo, during a trip to Balmoral, the Queen's Scottish retreat. On the Blairs' first visit to the castle, valets had unpacked Cherie's toiletries, including what she refers to as "contraceptive equipment." On a subsequent visit, she left the equipment at home to spare any blushes. That's a courtesy her readers should definitely not expect.