Let’s do lunch - Cherie Blair

As the prime minister’s wife, outspoken Cherie Blair juggled several roles and gave the tabloids plenty to write about. Over lunch with James Kidd she discusses life at Number 10, her new freedom and her enduring loyalty to the Labour Party 

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It is the hottest day of the year and Cherie Blair is running late. Given the demands on her time, this is hardly a surprise. A busy QC, wife and mother, she also runs the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, promoting women’s rights and economic independence across the world. Today, she is working on the follow-up to her Channel 4 programme about knife crime, as well as discussing with me her autobiography, Speaking for Myself, just out in paperback. With all this on her plate, it’s amazing Blair eats at all, let alone finds the time for lunch.

Then again, she’s been balancing the competing demands of career and family, her public and private roles, for almost 15 years. ‘We all have different identities and different constituencies,’ she says. ‘Until 1997 I had not thought of myself as Mrs Blair. I was Cherie. In court I was always Miss Booth – Miss Booth QC later on. As a school governor, I was Euan’s mum or Kathryn’s mum or Nicholas’s mum. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, everyone calls me Mrs Blair.’

All these different Cherie Blairs, along with a security guard, arrive to meet me eventually at the Hoxton Apprentice, which occupies one corner of the bustling Hoxton Square. It’s a revealing and philanthropic choice. Established by the charity Training for Life, the restaurant offers the homeless and long-term unemployed a chance to train in the hospitality sector. Unlike at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, apprentices are not only taught to be chefs, but to work as waiters, bar staff and managers. The scheme has helped more than 12,000 people back into full-time education or work at venues ranging from Buckingham Palace to Raymond Blanc’s restaurant at the Emirates Stadium.

Blair is impressed. ‘It fits in very well with what I have been doing about street crime. One thesis is that there are teachable moments, times in a child’s life when they can be steered from one course to another. [The Hoxton Apprentice] gives people the chance to learn a trade when for one reason or another they haven’t had that chance. That’s good for them and good for us too.’

Sitting at an upstairs table, Blair begins the business of ordering. ‘Food is one of the pleasures of life. I enjoy eating and cooking,’ she says. I ask if she has a speciality. ‘My kids always say no one makes Yorkshire pudding like me. Now I cook Chinese and Indian, but probably the staple food is some sort of pasta.’

For this meal, Blair picks the Hoxton deli platter to share, largely because of the mini Cumberland sausages served with salami, Parma ham, bresaola, Cheddar cheese, hoummos and grilled pitta. After much deliberation, she goes for a main of rib-eye steak, hand-cut chips and a mixed leaf salad.

‘I am a lot freer to do and say what I want without the danger of anything I say being interpreted as government policy’

blair - MG_1138.jpgWhat extends the decision-making is Blair’s capacious ability to natter. She shares warm hellos with Lady Valerie Corbett, an old friend and director of Training for Life; and with Gordon da Silva, the charity’s chief executive. Blair is just as comfortable chatting to the waiter, encouraging the photographer to join us and fussing over my own inability to order.

‘Go on,’ she says. ‘What do you want? Since I am feeling motherly towards you, do you want the fish and chips?’

This cheerfully maternal demeanour may surprise anyone who knows Blair largely through the tabloids. The Daily Mail, a long-term antagonist, regularly questioned her sanity with headlines such as ‘Is Cherie Blair misunderstood or bonkers?’, before arguing strongly for the latter.

Today, Blair seems amiable and genuinely down to earth. Happily describing herself as a ‘bolshie Scouser’, she laughs loudly, with a hint of Sybil Fawlty. Eating with undisguised glee, she tears into her steak. Blair talks with similar relish about her husband’s physique. ‘He’s six foot tall, and therefore a lot broader and more imposing than Michael Sheen [the actor who portrayed him in the films The Deal and The Queen].’

Blair uses jokes as both a weapon and a shield, often laughing at her own expense before anyone else does. ‘There were many times when I thought, how could a girl like me end up in a place like [Downing Street]? Which I think the Daily Mail editor asked every day.’blair6 - MG_1230.jpg

Later, when I ask if she is relieved to be out of Number 10, especially given Gordon Brown’s recent struggles, Blair replies that she is relieved not to have to stand next to Carla Bruni – ‘I don’t think my bottom matches up to hers.’

On a more serious note, she adds: ‘I am a Labour Party member, so I want our party to do well. I am very glad that Gordon has Sarah and the boys. He has a close family who will be supporting him at this time, and that is what he needs.’

Blair has learned to be wary after several infamous brushes with the press – over her association with former friend and lifestyle guru Carole Caplin, the purchase of a flat in Bristol and unguarded comments about everything from foie gras to Palestinian suicide bombers.

Drawing on her QC skills, Blair chooses her words carefully, discussing Caplin without referring to Caplin at all, and bouncing more than one enquiry back towards her inquisitor: ‘Are you married? Do you have kids?’. When I press her on life after Downing Street, she goes so far as to cross-examine herself. ‘If you ask me, did I enjoy being in Number 10? I absolutely did. Would I do it all over again? I absolutely would. Did I want to stay there for ever? Absolutely not. Tony always said two terms, 10 years maximum. After that, democracy needs to be refreshed and passed on to someone else.’

Blair, too, has been refreshed by the change. ‘We were sad to leave all our friends, but in another way, for me, it has been a lot better. I am a lot freer to do and say what I want without the danger of anything I say being interpreted as government policy.’

Outspoken and independent, she admits it took time to grow into her role as prime minister’s wife. Once she did, however, she enjoyed herself immensely. ‘It was fantastic, but I was always very conscious that the person who was elected, the person who was important, actually was my husband.’

She remains a steadfast supporter of her husband’s record, including his decision to invade Iraq in 2003. ‘No prime minister takes a decision to send people to war lightly,’ she says. ‘He did it because he thought he was right.’ Blair pauses. ‘He was right.’

We’ve come to the end of our meal, but lunch would not be complete without a question on the current disarray in British politics. So I refer to a revelation from her autobiography that she looked after Tony’s expenses before he became leader of the Opposition.

blair2 - MG_1148.jpgI half expect a joke, but Blair isn’t in the mood. ‘It’s a great shame. MPs do not go into Parliament to make a quick buck and to exploit their constituents. All the ones I’ve met go into it to serve the public, and I think we should hold on to that. If we start getting into a sort of frenzy of assuming that everyone is in it for themselves, then actually it’s wrong and it’s dangerous.’

Before she leaves to attend a Foundation for Women meeting, Blair asks to visit the kitchens. After the serious talk about wars and elections, she seems relieved to resume her charm offensive, talking happily to the chefs, Suleyman and Leon, who have returned to the Hoxton Apprentice after stints in other restaurants. It goes without saying that Blair leaves them smiling.

‘There were many times when I thought, how could a girl like me end up in a place like Downing Street?’

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2009