Cherie under the microscope again as Brand Blair suffers another bad week

Tony Blair

It has not been the best of weeks for Brand Blair. There was the release of a further batch of Hillary Clinton emails, including several showing Cherie pressing the then US secretary of state on behalf of the Qatari royal family.

And there was Tony, a guest of honour at a Chinese military parade in Beijing, an event mostly shunned by western leaders.

More awkward for Brand Blair was a diary item in London’s Evening Standard, “Amal Clooney v Cherie Blair in a human rights standoff”. It was a fun piece, raising the prospect of a faceoff between two of the best known lawyers in the UK.

But there is a dark side to it, too, drawing attention to Blair’s client Abdulla Yameen, president of the Maldives, who came to power in 2013 with the help of the country’s supreme court. By contrast, Clooney is representing Mohamed Nasheed, a reform-minded former president of the Maldives, forced from office and jailed for 13 years. Clooney described a terrorism charge against Nasheed as “phoney” and politically motivated.

There is unease in the legal community over this case. Blair attracts a lot of attention in the legal world, just as she did during her time at Downing Street. Lawyers tend to be coy about talking publicly about her. But one of the best known human rights lawyers in the UK, Mark Stephens, a senior member at Howard Kennedy, knows her and prefaces his remarks by saying she is “nothing like the Daily Mail caricature, that she is grasping and slightly bonkers”.

Others concur, describing her as witty and fun. But Stephens, like others, is concerned about the Maldives case. “Cherie is a stunningly good lawyer, so one needs to be slightly queasy at the prospect of a human rights lawyer of her quality representing a state with such low human rights values where she could bolster the regime with precedents which erode human rights,” Stephens said.

Clooney and Blair are unlikely to be facing off in a courtroom. Clooney, who works for human rights law firm Doughty Street Chambers, is instead preparing to present the case to a United Nations committee. No courtroom clash, but the issue will not being going away any time soon.

The story of Cherie Blair up until the couple left Downing Street in June 2007 is well known. She wrote about it movingly in her 2008 memoir, Speaking For Myself, about her hard upbringing in Liverpool – her father, the actor Tony Booth, left the family when she was only eight – to her successes in the legal profession and the relentless barracking she faced in Downing Street, from a media intent on portraying her, she wrote, as “a grasping, scheming embarrassment”.

She ends her memoir with the day the Blairs left No 10, reflecting on the previous decade, glad as a family to have come out the other end and “looking forward to the next phase of our lives”. That phase has seen Tony Blair floundering as an Israeli-Palestinian peace envoy while picking up lucrative work advising dubious governments in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Cherie Blair, who complained that while at Downing Street her voice was silenced, forced to adopt a subservient role, has also carved out a new and lucrative career. In 2011, she founded Omnia Strategy, with offices in London and Washington, which provides “strategic counsel to governments, corporates and private clients”. Last year, she left the human rights law firm she co-founded in 2000, Matrix Chambers.

What motivates her? A former minister in Blair’s government said of her: “It always struck me that she was insecure. And that is down to her background. Everything flows from that: the need for money.

Friends of the Blairs challenge that characterisation, citing money the couple channel to foundations they have set up as well as outside charities, with donations worth millions given away anonymously.

Some lawyers argue that Blair representing figures such Yameen can be justified on the grounds that everyone is entitled to legal representation. Others counter that while this taxi-rank approach – you take whoever comes along, no matter how distasteful: paedophiles, rapists, child murderers – applies within the UK, but that lawyers can exercise a choice over who they represent when it comes to overseas clients.

An Omnia spokesperson insisted the Maldives president had come to power through a democratic process accepted by all political parties and the international community, and that Nasheed’s resignation had been voluntary, not through illegal coercion or intimidation: “Omnia’s work in the Maldives includes advice on legislative reform to improve transparency and accountability.

“To seek advice on implementing these reforms from experts is not unusual. The portrayal by the media of a clash of two prominent international figures representing opposing sides within the Maldives is unfortunate,” they said. “This has resulted in broad generalisations. Our work within the Maldives is important and seeks to bring tangible improvements to a young nation that faces considerable challenges.”

Related: Cherie Booth calls for quotas to help women succeed in politics and business

On the Clinton emails, the Guardian reported in June how in 2009 Blair had written to the then US secretary of state asking her to set up a meeting on behalf of Sheikha Mozah, the second wife of the then emir of Qatar. After publication, Blair wrote to the Guardian to protest that this did not amount to lobbying and was merely a “harmless exchange”.

There were fresh email exchanges released this week, including one from Blair saying: “Hilary [sic] can you give me a telephone number the Qatar Crown Prince can ring you on and he will get in touch. Alternatively I can get his personal phone number for you. What is best for you?”

Why did Blair feel it was necessary to intervene in this way? The US has strong ties to Qatar, including a major airbase. It would not have been a problem for either the US or Qataris to talk directly to one another. A spokesperson for Cherie Blair said she had had a relationship with Sheikha Mozah over a number of years based on their shared interest in disability issues. “As the email also makes clear, she was merely acting as a conduit – on a woman-to-woman basis – between Sheikha Mozah and Hillary Clinton.”.

During an interview in the current issue of the magazine Women in Trade, Blair describes Clinton as a mentor who helped her cope at No 10 by sharing her experience as first lady. “Many years later she continues to be a source of support and encouragement. When I set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Hillary was also there for me, supporting our work.”

This is the other side of Cherie Blair, the strong feminist whose foundation, set up in 2008, was among the first things she did after her husband left the prime minister post. It aims to aid and encourage female entrepreneurs in the developing world. The foundation says it has helped more than 118,000 women in more than 80 countries. She told Women in Trade that the idea was inspired by her time in Downing Street, coming across women who had good business ideas but could not develop them because of cultural and legal obstacles.

In the interview, she describes her husband as being a “great support”. In March, the Daily Mail carried a report, “Will Tony and Cherie get divorced?”, suggesting the couple had grown apart, their relationship strained by rumours revolving round Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng. But friends say they do not recognise this characterisation.

Tony Blair is a polarising figure, loathed by large parts of the left and right. It would be unfair if Cherie Blair were to be castigated just because of her association as a spouse. In her memoir, she blames the media, complaining about her regular maulings. “Whatever I did, it seemed, I couldn’t win. It was the 20th-century equivalent of the stocks: anything could be thrown at me with impunity.”

Potted profile

Age 60. She turns 61 on 23 September.

Born Bury, Lancashire and brought up in Crosby, Liverpool. Her father was the actor Tony Booth, best known for the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. He left the family when she was eight and she was brought up by her mother, the actor Gale Howard, and one of her grandmothers.

Education Read law at London School of Economics and came top in her bar exams.

Politics Described as more political than husband Tony, who she met at the chambers of the then Derry Irvine, where they both worked. Stood as Labour candidate for North Thanet in 1983 and lost. Her husband stood for Sedgefield the same year and won.

Legal profession She became a QC in 1995, was one of the co-founders of the human rights specialists Matrix Chambers in 2000, and set up her own legal consultancy, Omnia Strategy, in 2011.

Other work Founded her own charity, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewen MacAskill, for The Guardian on Saturday 5th September 2015 12.00 Europe/London

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