As a Catholic, I’ve always been fascinated by Cherie Blair, who was born in 1954 and raised in Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool with a long-standing Catholic tradition. Cherie, like me, had an errant father whose absence cast a shadow over the family. And when I sat down to write a play about her, Cherie – My Struggle (at the Edinburgh Festival, August 2-25), I drew on my personal experience to portray her parents’ rocky marriage and the shame felt by her mother when she was abandoned by her husband. The non-judgmental term “single mum” wasn’t in use in the 1950s. The term for Cherie’s family was a “broken home”.
Her mother, Gale Booth, was an Anglican from Derbyshire, and it was thanks to her father, ironically, that Cherie was raised as a Catholic. Tony Booth, the sitcom actor, was born in 1931 to a traditional Catholic family. He attended St Mary’s College in Crosby, which was run by the Christian Brothers. Their free use of corporal punishment infuriated Booth and he referred to them as “a bunch of hooligans” in his autobiography. Aged 14, he was expelled after an altercation with a teacher which resulted in the man’s glasses being broken (and his nose, Booth later claimed).
When Booth came home with the bad news, his mother marched him straight back into the headmaster’s office and demanded his reinstatement. The headmaster, a history graduate, saw a spark of talent in the charming but rebellious youngster and he agreed not only to readmit him but to give him personal tuition in history. A university place might have followed but when Booth was 15 years old, his father was maimed in a dockside accident and Booth left school to become the family breadwinner.
Aged 21, working as an actor, he landed a role in The Princess and the Swineherd opposite a beautiful young actress, Gale Howard. They became romantically involved and Gale was already three months pregnant when the couple married in London in 1953. They named their first child Cherie after the daughter of a theatrical landlady. But the unconventional name was not acceptable for the sacrament of baptism and they were advised to use the Latin form instead. So Cherie is not really Cherie. She was baptised Cara.
Her sister, Lyndsey, was born two years later. But her father was restless and ambitious, and he had no intention of letting his young family cramp his style. He settled the three of them in his mother’s home in Liverpool and went off in pursuit of fame and fun. “Crumpeteering,” he called it.
One of Cherie’s earliest memories is her First Communion. She was presented with a new white dress for the occasion, but Lindsey, aged five, kicked up such a fuss that their mother had to buy the younger girl an identical outfit to placate her.
Unlike her dad, Cherie was a diligent pupil who threw herself into every opportunity at school, including drama. At university, she struggled to reconcile her faith with the new political creed of radical feminism. Her romantic streak, inherited from her father perhaps, has always had a strong influence over her, and in her autobiography she admits that during her student days she maintained contact with a boyfriend in Liverpool while accepting the attentions of a fellow undergraduate at the London School of Economics.
After graduating, she studied for the bar, where she met an earnest young lawyer from Oxford who espoused a form of Evangelical Christianity. His name was Anthony Blair. It was their mutual interest in the social possibilities of Christ’s mission that cemented the bond between them. Blair’s Christianity has always been central to his life and to his career. As his biographer Anthony Seldon said, “Religion brought him into politics in the first place, not reading Labour Party history.”
The couple married in June 1980 in the chapel of Blair’s alma mater, St John’s College, Oxford. They chose this Protestant venue because it suited Cherie’s mother who had moved from Liverpool to Oxford, where she worked at the local branch of John Lewis. (Cherie received episcopal permission to marry on C of E turf.)
During her husband’s premiership, Cherie was constantly attacked by the press but only once was her faith the cause of criticism. In 2006, she had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome where she was photographed wearing a white jacket. Her detractors pounced. “White outfit, wrong occasion, Cherie,” gloated the Daily Telegraph. Their correspondent stated that le privilège du blanc – the right to wear white in the pope’s presence – extended only to Catholic queens. Cherie’s defenders pointed out that the meeting took place at the pope’s instigation, and no criticism of her clothes was ever ventured by the Vatican.
Perhaps Cherie’s greatest triumph as a Catholic is to have set her husband on the path to Rome. When Tony Blair was received in 2007, shortly after quitting Downing Street, he was in no doubt where the credit lay. “Frankly, this all began with my wife,” he told the London Evening Standard. “We could have gone to the Anglican or the Catholic church. Guess who won?”
Lloyd Evans is a theatre critic and playwright