Fibs aren’t a feminist issue: Cherie and the cynicism of sisterhood

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. There you and your husband are, interfering in the operation of a blind trust with the help of your lifestyle guru’s fraudster friend, but when the Mail on Sunday gets wind of what you’re doing, not only do your initial lies get found out, but your husband’s team of top-quality spin-doctors can’t even get you out of it! And then journalists keep asking questions, which is completely unreasonable, and the Opposition — well, sometimes it’s almost as if they’re out to get the Government! Oh, the cruelty of it all — the unfairness, the unkindess, especially for someone who has to juggle the demanding roles of wife, mother, career woman and charity worker on a high salary, with only a small army of maids, nannies, drivers, security men and PR people to help. What’s a girl to do?

Well, in the case of Cherie Booth QC, the answer was to turn up at a charity prize-giving and to deliver a self-righteous little speech in which she both apologised and insisted she had nothing to apologise about. Paradoxical? Well, yes, but then women don’t really have to be logical, do they, especially when they are in ‘lioness defending her young’ mode? (It’s a hormone thing, darling — men just don’t understand.)

Thus it came to pass that the cream of the British press corps, plus anyone who happened to be watching the 7pm news, was treated to the following from a high-flying lawyer and would-be judge:

I now realise I made two mistakes. My immediate instinct when faced with the questions from the Mail on Sunday 10 days ago was to protect my family’s privacy, and particularly my son in his first term at university, living away from home.This instinct, which I think any mother would have, and my desire not to open myself up to any and every question which the press should choose to ask me is what led to the misunderstanding in the press office and I think they know that I did not act in any way to mislead them.

The second mistake I made was to allow someone I barely knew, and indeed had not then met, to get involved in my family’s affairs.

But perhaps even more striking is the language surrounding this key portion. ‘I am not superwoman,’ Cherie admitted:

The reality of my daily life is that I am juggling a lot of balls in the air — some of you must have experienced that. Trying to be a good wife and mother, trying to be the prime ministerial consort at home and abroad and being a barrister, a charity worker. And sometimes some of the balls get dropped. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Poor Cherie! She spoke poignantly about the need to protect her family’s privacy — conveniently ignoring the fact that no one really cares about her wretched family and their housing arrangements per se. What they want to hear about is her husband’s misuse of a blind trust, the efforts of Alistair Campbell & Co to organise and sustain a cover-up, and perhaps a bit about Cherie’s attempts to finesse the legal system to help her friend’s hapless beau. The idea that any of this has security implications consonant with the size of the lie necessary to silence the story doesn’t survive a moment’s scrutiny. Oh dear, if this is the best that one of our sharper legal minds can offer, we are all in a bit of trouble.

But just to recap for our dimmer sisters, Cherie’s two mistakes were ‘to protect my family’s privacy’ and ‘to allow someone I barely knew … get involved in my family’s affairs’ — both of which came from following that prime feminine motive force, ‘instinct’. Cherie obviously liked that first point, though, because by resorting to a theatrical quarter-sob part way through it, she ensured that it would be the soundbite singled out by every new bulletin throughout the evening, and indeed well into this morning, too. And what did the media conclude? That it was ‘brave’ of Mrs Blair to speak thus — after all, it’s not as if she banks a six-figure salary for making persuasive speeches or anything — and that her ‘frank’ statement might well mean ‘drawing a line’ under this whole issue. Presumably Cherie is now free to go back to making bread, darning socks, suckling babies and making everything nice for Tony, or whatever it is that this fragile blossom of a wife and mother generally does in the course of her busy, busy days, untroubled by these nasty men and their unfair, unfeeling questions.

The Cherie-gate narrative is not a simple one. It lacks a central visual image — well, at least it did until the weekend papers unearthed the fact that Cherie sometimes showers together with her lifestyle guru, failed porn star Carole Caplin, although that’s an image that many of us would like to forget as soon as possible. Nor does it fit the template established long ago by the Bernie Ecclestone scandal and the Lakshmi Mittal scandal and Hinduja brothers scandal, in which prominent Labour Party figures sucked up to rich people in the hope of receiving money from them. It’s disturbing to learn that the PM’s business affairs are being carried out by a man best known for serial diet-pill scams, and that a QC should check court lists in order to provide a conman with information about the judge presiding over his case, but none of these are the sort of thing that sends the angry mobs into the street.

But I think the fact that the story seems slightly hard to grasp is actually part of the point. It’s very much in Downing Street’s interest that the narrative is seen to revolve around Cherie, her dodgy or perhaps even laudable ‘instinct’ and even her ‘brave’ way of dealing with the story itself. Otherwise, it might be possible to frame a version of events in which Cherie is only an incidental figure — the agent of her husband’s grossly inappropriate interventions in what was meant to be a blind trust, Alistair Campbell’s habitual lying to the sometimes complicit media, and the use of government-funded specialists to tidy up the PM’s personal and political problems — culminating in the scandalous efforts of the Home Office to speed up the extradition of someone whose solicitors are causing embarrassment to the government. By sending capable barrister Cherie out to do what she does best — and at the same time, encouraging her to wrap herself in a big comfy rhetoric of feminine cluelessness and touching vulnerability — Downing Street has pulled off a marvellous coup du theatre.

For the moment, a few journalists and Labour rebels apart, it seems to have worked. The Conservatives, for their part, appear unable to engage with a situation in which it’s Labou’s turn to look battered and beleaguered. Surely that’s our job? Instead of attacking Blair for his high-handed way with legal and constitutional proprieties, then, the Tories waited a clear calendar week before wading into the dispute, where they chanced upon the strange expedient of buying into Downing Street’s focus on Cherie but refusing to attack her personally. Members of the Opposition front bench speak of ‘questions that remain to be answered’ and call for a public enquiry — while at the same time Dave Davis salutes Cherie for her ‘bravery’, and Theresa May launched into an extraordinary tribute on the Today Programme:

Obviously her statement was very moving … I deeply sympathise with her … many people will recognise what she says about juggling the responsibilities of a wife, mother and career woman.

This, from the chairman of the party that’s supposed to be trying to remove Labour from office! How’s that for sisterly solidarity? So great is the misplaced chivalry on show here that I strongly doubt Mrs Blair’s name will be raised during PMQs today. Meanwhile, the word I’d have used — ‘cynical’ — was conspicuous by its absence.

And that, in a way, tells you all you need to know about the standing of women in politics today. Theresa May rose to fame through her sub-Anne Robinson routine at Tory Party Conference, far more for that hint of dominatrix imagery and some cheap kitten heels than for anything she’s actually achieved — although, since the number of Tory women selected for seats has not risen since her appointment last summer, it’s not surprising she’s keeping quiet. Still, rumours persist about a Golden List that would parachute women into safe seats, without the need for any of that terrible competition business — so unpleasant, and which they obviously couldn’t succeed at anyway. At the same time, Estelle Morris received near-universal approbation for admitting that she couldn’t do her job properly, wasn’t enjoying it much anyway and wanted to quit. The fact that she actually couldn’t do her job was tactfully ignored because, after all, what matters for women is that they have nice personalities and make other people feel good, not that they can actually achieve anything. And now when Cherie Booth needs a bit of sympathy, she can snuffle a little, talk about how hard things are, and fall back on the excuse of her instinctual, sub-rational but engagingly feminine nature, safe in the knowledge that once she’s admitted her frailty everyone will ‘sympathise’ and that no one will dare to attack her. As the Guardian‘s leader put it, she has shown she’s a human being. And that’s a pretty impressive achievement for a little lady, isn’t it?

No, this isn’t the way that feminism was supposed to work, but from Downing Street’s point of view it’s a good tactic, in the sense that it’s an effective tactic. Given the problems they face at the moment, there’s no surprise that they resorted to it. Cherie is hardly the first woman to fall back upon other people’s chivalry or sympathy the minute that things go horribly wrong. No, it’s the response of the media and the Opposition that amazes me. Guardian readers may find this stuff compelling, but has the Conservative Party completely lost its ties to the real world? There are, after all, plenty of women, some of them wives and mothers and working women too, who have to struggle on without maids and nannies, personal assistants and PR girls, drivers and security men, let alone lifestyle gurus, financial advisers and £600,000 flats, and you know what? Many of them manage to get by without cheating, lying or pretending to be less strong than they really are. I doubt, if they had a moment to spare for the subject, that they’d sympathise with Cherie’s plight as fulsomely as some of her fellow politicians and journalists are prepared to do. Sisterhood? What sisterhood? Cherie’s no sister of mine, or theirs either.

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