Still the only PM’s wife to work full-time while her husband was in office, trailblazing barrister, campaigner and frequent media target Cherie Blair gives a rare interview to the Guardian
You have to know where to go to find the office of Cherie Blair’s Foundation for Women. There’s no sign in the entrance hall of the grand office block in central London — just the discreet initials “CBO” to guide you once you’ve made it to the seventh floor, with its gorgeous views over Hyde Park.
The anonymity in a grand setting somehow fits the post-office career of the wife of the former prime minister, who set up her charitable foundation four years ago. Although she is often found at gatherings of the great and good, she has rarely given interviews since her autobiography was published. Yet her foundation, which raised £4m in its first three years from blue-chip companies (such as Vodafone) as well as the Blairs themselves, has been busy with mentoring and technology projects helping women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The day after she launches a software project in India, the Guardian is granted a 20-minute interview to talk about the foundation’s work in Cherie’s stately private office. The imposing mahogany furniture (a table from her old legal chambers, chairs from Tony’s office) and abundant white orchids belong in a high-end magazine spread, but down the hall, the charity’s 15 members of staff seem happy sharing a set of poky rooms.
The fact that Cherie decided to focus her charitable efforts on helping women become economically independent came as no surprise to many who knew her. “It’s always been about women and girls,” she tells me. “You know my story. I had opportunities that my mother and grandmother didn’t have. I was a beneficiary of the time.” In her autobiography Speaking for Myself she writes about her actor mother, about being abandoned by her father, forced to work in a fish-and-chip shop in the Liverpool docks in order to provide for her family and support her daughter. The first of her family to go to university, Blair thrived, taking first-class honours before going on to beat the privileged male elite to come top of her year’s bar exams.
But although she is a patron of several homegrown charities – Breast Cancer Care and Refuge among them – the foundation’s work, like that of her husband, focuses on other countries. Why? “I took advantage of the struggles of many women before me in my country and … [there are] plenty of women in emerging markets in the position I was in in the 1970s,” explains Blair.
Her focus on developing countries means that she largely steers clear of Fleet Street, a point that is made not just by journalists but by some of her biggest supporters. “Do you blame her?” says one. “Everything she does is greeted with cynicism and scepticism. The narrative about Cherie has been written about the Daily Mail and their agenda has been adopted by the whole media.”
Her errors have been well documented – not least the property deals for her children and the use of eBay to dispose of some unwanted gifts – but a quick glance at the cuttings does give some support to the conspiracy theorists. Her treatment by the media has long been a bugbear of her husband of course, who used his appearance in front of the Leveson inquiry to talk about the Mail “vendetta”.
An attractive women in person, Blair’s most commonly photographed expression is one in which her wide mouth is stretched in a rictus grin. In the Mail this October even her support for Team GB’s Olympic bid was seen in a negative light. In criticising the French president for rubbishing English food, Lord Coe described Blair as behaving “like a banshee”. The Coe book actually praised Blair’s intervention defending British interests against the French and yet Coe’s anecdote, which painted her as a screeching harpy, with Chirac “unable to get out of the room fast enough” was printed by both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. However, it’s easy to see how her forthright manner gets her into trouble. Take the most recent spat over what was reported as an “astonishing attack on stay-at-home” mothers. What she actually said, at a glitzy Fortune event, was that women should be economically independent of their husbands as they could be abandoned or left widowed at any moment. “Every woman needs to be self-sufficient and in that way you really don’t have a choice – for your own satisfaction; you hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me.”
Because she used a derogatory term for women who rely on their husband’s income while they look after the children, the more nuanced debate about work-life balance in which she was also critical of her own performance was missed. She describes the subsequent reports in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Guardian as a “complete misunderstanding of what I was saying”.
Yet she almost walks straight back into the bear trap of working motherhood when talking about her position as the first wife of an acting PM who continued to work: “I’m still basically the only, which just goes to show I put everyone else off!” What about Sameron Cameron and her consultancy at Smythson, I ask? She quickly qualifies any impression left that she is criticising part-time workers.
“I can completely see why women would choose to spend time caring for their children – as, just like any other working mother, I often wonder whether I’m doing any of my jobs well – but I also feel [it’s wrong] that once they have chosen to do that they can never do anything else in their life.”
The issue – a campaigner for women’s independence who is rightly proud of her career must not appear to criticise others who choose differently – highlights the fine line she has to tread. “Women tend to judge other women harshly,” is all she will say.
“We should be kinder to each other, accept that we’re all different and can make different choices. Not go for some kind of stereotypical idea that we’re perfect. Frankly, I’m not perfect.”
Her belief in financial independence runs through her work and again she credits her difficult childhood and the injustices she met during her early years as a barrister. Women, refused maintenance by their husbands unless they went back to work, struggled to do so because they had “spent 20 or 30 years looking after their children”, she says.
This independence sits slightly at odds with the name of the charity – why did she call it the Cherie Blair foundation when she continued to work under her maiden name, Cherie Booth QC?
Blaming advisers for making her “call it Cherie anything”, she says it was all about raising the profile of a cause she believed in. “Who in the world, since we’re talking about working outside England, knows who Cherie Booth is? Yet they all know who Tony Blair is and some might know who Cherie Blair is. The question is, do you care about a cause and do you want it to get a profile? And if you do then it’s not a vanity thing but a question of what works.”
But we have spent too long talking about domestic concerns and Blair, surrounded by four mobile phones, is keen to talk about technology. As well as the Indian adventure, her team is working with women in Indonesia, providing what she describes as a “nano MBA” to female entrepreneurs by offering daily tips on business.
Her championing of technology is heartfelt – she spearheaded her own chambers’ efforts adopting new technologies in the early 1990s and credits it with allowing her to continue working in Downing Street – and she can reel off statistics from research commissioned by the foundation that supports her cause. A woman is 23% less likely to own a phone than a man in Africa and 37% less likely in South Asia for example. Earlier this month the foundation launched a new project to provide software for 2,000 retail agents in rural India.
This software for the so-called Rudibens, women who order goods from a large company to sell to their villages, has transformed lives.
There are few role models for former first ladies in the UK – unlike the US where Hillary Clinton has set a new bar as secretary of state. After 11 years in No 10, Cherie says she was keen to combine her legal acumen with her campaigning passions and thus the foundation was born.
In March, she is to travel to India to visit the Rudibens and learn the results of an independent assessment. “We want to know, has it changed their lives? If it hasn’t, we’ll do something else.”
There are many more questions but no more time. Her staff usher me out of the room. A “foreign minister of an African state” is waiting outside.