Career-juggling at Britain's 10 Downing Street

Cherie blair, wife of Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been something of an icon for "have it all" working women, not only in Britain, but the world over.

A highly successful lawyer, she earns twice her husband's salary. Two days before giving birth to their fourth child, Leo, in May (at age 45), she was arguing in court for Britain to bring parental leave laws in line with more generous European Union standards. And she raised eyebrows by publicly prodding her husband to take time off to help care for the newborn.

With a general election due next year, Mrs. Blair's prominence is making her a target for opposition Conservatives. John Bercow declared Aug. 7, "People in Britain will not put up with anyone who thinks she can be an unaccountable cross between first lady and Lady Macbeth." Mr. Bercow, a senior party spokesman was speaking with the open support of Conservative leader William Hague. He accused Mrs. Blair of interfering in - maybe even trying to shape - key government policies. He also suggested that she stands to benefit financially from them.

It's the kind of vitriolic attack familiar to another successful lawyer married to a prominent politician - Hillary Clinton.

Far from shrinking from the political limelight, Mrs. Clinton is running for office herself, seeking to represent New York in the Senate.

Both women are setting new standards for the traditional political spouse.

Norma Major, wife of the former Conservative premier, loathed publicity and spent much of her time writing books about opera singers. Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, was never heard to utter a political sentiment within earshot of reporters.

Debate over social roles

Mrs. Blair, by sharp contrast, is a high-profile public figure in her own right, known to harbor ambitions of an eventual judgeship. Now, Bercow's scathing remarks put her at the epicenter of a row over the rights and roles of women in British society and politics.

According to political analyst Michael White, the dispute reveals "a deep rift in attitudes towards women" between the Labour Party and Conservatives. He says the rift is "reflected in the composition of Parliament."

Labour currently has more than 100 female members of the House of Commons, compared with the Conservatives' 14.

Conservative women say they find it difficult to persuade constituency associations to adopt them as candidates for Parliament. Labour women, meanwhile, have benefited from their party's policy of encouraging constituency associations to choose female candidates.

Mr. Blair has been lagging with female voters, however. A senior Conservative Party official says, "Earlier this year, Tony Blair was booed at a meeting of the Women's Institute, and badly needs to improve his standing with female voters. Obviously Cherie is trying to help him."

Bercow, dubbed "Rottweiler" by Conservative friends for his aggressive style, remains unrepentant over his remarks. He says Mrs. Blair "suffers from 'a Hillary syndrome,' " and "forgets that in Britain we already have a first lady - the queen."

Instead, Bercow says, she should observe "the long-standing convention" that prime ministers' wives "don't concern themselves with politics."

He went on to accuse her of "standing to profit financially" as a lawyer from new government policies on human rights that she has defended publicly.

Well before Labour came to power in May 1997, Mrs. Blair was operating with distinction as a "Queen's Counsel," a title given to members of an elite group of high-court advocates.

Known professionally by her maiden name, Cherie Booth, she has successfully represented men and women seeking redress against unfair treatment by employers.

Earlier this year, she co-founded Matrix, a new legal partnership that will specialize in human rights law.

This happened just as Prime Minister Blair was preparing to introduce a bill that will bring British law in line with European human rights legislation.

Conservatives maintain that the measure, due to take effect Oct. 2, will "open the floodgates" to spurious human rights claims.

Public endorsement?

The controversy heated up when, as Cherie Booth, she wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph. The Aug. 7 article states: "The Human Rights Act forms an integral part of the government's programme of constitutional reform, which has the aim of modernizing Britain to make it a strong and confident democracy in the 21st century."

A Downing Street spokesman said Mrs. Blair had been speaking in her capacity as a lawyer.

But to Mr. Hague and Bercow, it sounded like endorsement of government policy by the prime minister's wife.

Political analysts say Bercow was out to get at Tony Blair by attacking his wife. The strategy is not without risk, however. Mrs. Blair earlier this year won the title of Britain's "top female icon" in a poll conducted by Aura magazine.

And a leaked internal party report by the Conservative Party Forum, a research body, said the party needed to work much harder to court female voters. The report was based on the findings of 270 discussion groups around the country.

Cinderella's opposite

Mrs. Blair, meanwhile, has been edging steadily closer to center-stage in national politics. In March, while heavily pregnant, she called for changes in the law to improve what she called "the sometimes intolerable burden on women in the workplace."

She said "a culture of discrimination" forced women "to struggle with the balance of work and family life."

Last year, she jokingly said she identified with a social condition known as "Allerednic syndrome" - Cinderella spelled backwards.

There are no signs she intends to kick off those antiglass slippers, however.

In the fall, at the Labour Party's annual conference, she is set to chair a meeting on the issue of the government's record on women - the first time she has played such a role.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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