‘When a friend who is supposedly a fashion adviser offers to massage your husband, there is a problem’

Family Modern Life UK Politics US Politics Westminster

If America’s First Lady-elect, Michelle Obama, is looking for a role model, she is hardly likely to choose Cherie Blair, whom the British media cast in the role of Cruella de Vil for much of the past decade.

But Mrs Obama could do much worse. The two women have several points in common: both have combined successful legal careers with raising a family; both are from fairly humble backgrounds; and both see themselves as their husbands’ intellectual equals.

Can Michelle learn from Cherie’s mistakes, which contributed to – though did not entirely justify – her bad press? The love of freebies, the gaucheness, her irritating way of keeping us all guessing when she would be Cherie Blair the consort and when Cherie Booth the barrister, the toe-curling autobiography. Still, take away these relatively minor crimes and you have a thoroughly modern woman: earning her own living, bringing up a large family and trying to have fun, too.

Cherie flew the flag for late motherhood: enduring 12 hours of natural labour aged 45 has contributed to making those who give birth later in life feel less like odd-ones-out. Even at the best of times, being the PM’s wife must have put an immense strain on her relationships with her husband and family.

She can be generous, too. Only a couple of days after Iain Duncan Smith had been ousted as Tory leader by a vote of no confidence, he attended a charity party. He stood hovering alone by the door while others, including Tories, looked sheepishly at their feet; friends disappear quickly in politics when you are not in favour. It was Cherie who crossed the room to embrace him warmly and whisper a few words in his ear.

Another revealing side to Cherie was her schoolgirl loyalty to her rubbish friend Carol Caplin. When a “friend” who is supposedly your fashion adviser puts you in ill-fitting trousers and offers to massage your husband, there is a problem. A better judge of character would have been able to spot it a mile off. It was a grubby affair, but one could not help but admire Cherie when, during her excruciating appearances before the press, she staunchly referred throughout to “my friend Carol”.

Most who have met her find that she is actually quite nice. Cherie manages to be both a man’s and a woman’s woman. A Downing Street aide recalls, “She liked hanging around with the girls in the office, talking about boyfriends. She was thrilled when a picture of Tony was ‘Torso of the Week’ in Heat magazine. She wandered around the office proudly pointing at the picture of her husband in shorts. She loved it.”

Cherie is well thought of by Westminster’s regular photographers; one snapper describes her as “a fabulous flirt”. A Labour adviser says, “I guess she was the Kerry Katona of the political world, often the butt of jokes and snobbery.” He adds, “She is quite sexy though, compared to the bloodless middle-class trendies like Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell. I know who I would rather spend the evening with.”

After more than a decade in Number 10, Cherie’s gaffe quota was actually surprisingly low. Never a great PR person for herself, she played the game but the wife at home scenario was never going to happen.

Compare Madame Sarkozy, France’s first lady. Carla Bruni has been in the role 10 minutes and is already emerging as a dangerous meddler in politics. Glamorous as she is, the French don’t like it. Carla became personally involved in the case of a former Red Brigades terrorist from Italy. She visited Marina Petrella in hospital to tell her she would not be sent to Italy to serve a life sentence for complicity in the 1991 murder of a police chief.

How did Carla persuade her husband not to extradite this woman? Did she kneel in front of him in a diaphanous nightdress, throatily singing her hit chanson “Quelqu’un M’a Dit?” Or did she simply use what she calls her “Kitty Eyes”? Cherie would certainly not have got away with it. It is no secret that she disagreed with her husband on a number of issues and on numerous occasions bit her tongue. This must have been a tough call for a mouthy, Liverpudlian human-rights lawyer.

Not naturally stylish, Cherie refuses to starve herself. A yearly staple of the August press was an unforgiving holiday photo of Cherie, usually in a swimsuit, hanging up Tony’s Vilebrequins. This is the stuff of female nightmares. When the Sarkozys visited Windsor earlier this year, Sarah Brown posed beside the exquisite Carla in an adequate though slightly frumpy jacket and skirt. Most female commentators were fair to Mrs Brown. One can’t help but doubt whether Mrs Blair would have been treated with such sisterly sympathy.

When their courting became public, Sarah Brown asked Gordon’s then press spokesman, Charlie Whelan, for advice on how she should conduct herself. Whelan suggested, “Like the Queen Mother: be seen and say very little.” Mrs Brown has followed that advice. But Mrs Obama? She is stepping into a brighter spotlight than any other leader’s wife in history has had to endure and she cannot be dull. But she will have to tread carefully; already there is talk of her ambitious streak. The moral of Cherie’s story: walk softly but carry a big stick – even if it is only a lipstick.