I went to see Cherie Blair speak at LSE this week in her role as LSE alumni and also to plug her new book Speaking for Myself. I was a bit too young and uninterested in politics to pay much attention to her during ‘The Blair Years’ so I went without too many preconceived opinions and found her a great speaker, obviously in her comfort zone she was charming, funny and smart.
There were lots of anecdotes from her time at No.10, but the main theme was one on which her book features – the role of first lady, which history has always been fascinated with. Apparently Hilary Clinton said being first lady for eight years is a political qualification in itself – no doubt – but Cherie focussed on how important it was to show you know you’re not the politician. You weren’t elected and you don’t have the right to, or the weight of pressure and experience that comes with taking political decisions, it’s not like the days of Madame Pompadour or Elena Ceauşescu.
Before I went I tweeted a request for questions, the best of which being from @DavidBrain who asked ‘What advice she had for Michelle Obama?’. Cherie’s response – ‘Never answer the door without your hair and make up done’ reveals the lighthearted tone of the evening, and she talked about the pressure on first lady’s to look the part but simultaneously not be seen to spend money on it. Note to Sarah Palin.
Cherie did reference some proper advice she’d given in The Times a few weeks ago, following on from Michelle’s as ever perfectly pitched piece saying her priority was on being Mom. The advice – ‘Learn to like the back seat’ trod Cherie’s line about a first lady’s role, but Michelle took no backseat in the US elections, she was inspiring and essential to the Obamarama.
Conversely, Cherie described how she was purposely put in a back seat, both during the 1997 election campaign and Tony’s time in power. After losing in 1992 the focus of the party on winning, involved a streamlining of messaging – it was about Tony, the cabinet and the policies. It was a strategic PR decision, she wasn’t to interview, especially with The Daily Mail saying she was ‘Britain’s Hilary Clinton’ – to her a compliment, but not meant as such. Obviously because she was so out of the focus it created a vacuum of information about her which the press then filled anyway.
Interesting that the policy of ‘back seat wife’ which maybe helped get Tony in wouldn’t have worked for Obama, where Michelle has been an essential asset.
Feminism was an underlining theme of the talk, when talking about balancing work and family, she referenced her Mum’s single motherhood juggling as the real hard work. Also the sexism she faced when applying to Chambers in the 1970s when she was told ‘We’ve got a woman, we couldnt possibly have another. What if you got pregnant at the same time?’ . Can you imagine!
So I wish I’d known about the Miss University London pageants which LSE are part of which I heard about later in the week. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a beauty pageant for female uni students and understandably it has caused some furore in the press, blogs, and a growing Facebook Miss-Ogynist protest group. I have to say I’m not impressed, I would have loved to have asked Cherie what she thought of it.
Anyway, thanks to my lovely friend Lou who works at LSE for reminding me to book tickets – we joke that we used to go to my free bar, and now we go to free lectures!