The labours of Cherie

Mar 26, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

For all her achievements as Cherie Booth QC, Cherie Blair has had a rocky ride at No 10. Ginny Dougary joined her on last month's tour of Pakistan and Afghanistan to gain a remarkable close-up view of the PM's spouse in action.


Photo: Jenny Matthews

The period of our travels with Mrs B, wife of The Boss - as the couple at No 10 are known by their staff - began with admonishments from one of her advisers that I was not under any circumstances to write "fluffily" about Cherie's clothes, and ended back in England with Hairgate, the front-page disclosures that the Labour Party had paid £7,700 to Cherie's hairdresser - the bill for a month of styling her locks - during last year's general election campaign.

In between the warning and what felt like its fulfilment, a photographer, Jenny Matthews, and I had spent a week more or less "embedded" with Cherie and her entourage in Pakistan - where the Prime Minister's wife had been invited as a guest of the Government, in her own right as patron of Breast Cancer Care - and Afghanistan, meeting the most remarkable women, from the loftiest to the lowest echelons of their societies.

My first sighting of Mrs B was one that has somehow stuck through all the other images of her more buffed public persona, perhaps because it was more "real". She emerged from the plane, as we touched down at dawn in Islamabad, uncoiffed, no make-up, sleepy, casually dressed. She may be an ambitious woman with a formidable brain, and a pronounced drive to change the world for the better - a consequence of both her unpampered upbringing and her faith - but the ability I witnessed in her to connect with people from the most humble backgrounds, is to do with her humanity and natural warmth.

Watching her at close quarters, over a prolonged period, I sometimes caught a glimpse of her as a young girl - when she walked from a stage to her seat, with her modest, unshowy deportment; an occasional suggestion of lack of confidence in her general mien. I had come across her daughter, Kathryn, years ago, in a different context, and was struck by something similar in the way that they carried themselves.

Throughout the trip, Cherie was at pains to point out to the women she met that the fight for equal rights was something that was still being fought in her own country. This was partly a diplomatic move, an attempt to minimise the gulf of difference and maximise mu­t­uality, but also because it happens to be true. While it would be almost grotesquely absurd to equate the deprivations of most Western women with the barbarisms that are meted out to some women in Pakistan - honour killings, burnings and the like - it is still undeniably the case that certain prominent women are filtered through a particular prism. At one point in our journey, I asked Cherie whether it irk­ed her that a woman's image is so pivotal to the way her actions are perceived. "You don't have to worry about lipstick in the law," was Cherie Booth, QC, bencher of Lincoln's Inn, and founder of Matrix Chambers' response.

At the end of our time together, when we sat down to a formal interview, I asked her how she felt about her depiction as a greedy, freebie-chasing, slightly loopy - here, she chuckled - creepily alternative, Lady Macbeth figure. "Lady Macbeth!" she chuckled more. "Is there anyone else evil we can identify me with? Look, in the end, you've spent a week with me. You can make up your own mind whe­th­er you think I'm a completely Loopy-Lou, freebie-loving person. But I am here with a serious purpose, actually, and because I think that if we can try and do something to make a difference, we should."

We arrive for the lunch in the President's house, through security and into various spectacularly high-domed rooms, and thence into the banqueting hall. It is the start of a dizzying jerk between different realities, only a helicopter or convoy drive away: from opulent palaces, hallucinogenic flower displays, and fragrant ladies who mostly have their heads uncovered, to refuges, tented schools, widows, orphans, the stench of dung and poverty, scorched earth.

At the central table, Cherie is seated between Mrs Musharraf, the wife of the President, and Mrs Aziz, wife of the Prime Minister, and patron of the Breast Cancer (Pink Ribbon) Campaign in Pakistan. Other tables are filled with an impressive array of female academics, lawyers and campaigners. It is this sort of dual hosting of Mrs B's trips that is so often a matter of political delicacy: when does Cherie Booth become Cherie Blair? But the statistics that we are to hear again and again override the temptation to speculate about any such tensions.

Pakistan has the highest rate of mortalities from breast cancer of any Asian country; statistics show that 35 per cent of women suffer from breast cancer. It is shocking, is it not? - as Cherie is to say in one of her many speeches - that more than 50 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Pakistan don't even report for treatment. And it is shocking - is it not? - that so many women die from the disease without even passing through the health system.

There are all sorts of reasons why women from a predominantly Muslim country would not feel free to check their own breasts - or have their husbands, or anyone else, check them for them. But beyond the cultural obstacles, there is also the question of lack of funds, a shortage of female health workers, general ignorance and, until now, a lack of will to do anything about the problem. I was told that a "proper" word for breasts doesn't even exist in Urdu; only demeaning slang.

Cherie's personal connection with breast cancer - and most activists have one - is that her aunt Audrey, who played a significant role in her niece's upbringing, died of the disease aged 52, having spent years in denial about the lump she had found. As the Patron of Breast Cancer Care points out, even in our own country it is relatively recent that the stigma and secrecy around the disease has lifted.

Off by helicopter to "Aashiana", a Persian word meaning nest, a temporary government-funded refuge for widows, orphans and women made destitute by the earthquake that claimed 87,000 lives. The figures produced in a random survey by the Population Council and UNICEF of vulnerable people in earthquake-affected areas suggest that there are 6,047 orphans, 1,724 widows and destitute women, 4,686 disabled. This refuge on 50 acres has the capacity to care for just 1,500 of them.

We go into a room where 15-year-old boys and girls in neat blue cotton sit in front of a dozen computers. Mrs B makes a beeline for one of the girls and asks her to explain what she is doing. "I use the computer a lot," she explains, always offering an example from her own life to try to put the other person at ease. But this is not just small talk. Over a curry lunch in a restaurant the next day, the most relaxed event of the week since it was spontaneous, she tells me what a lovely job she did on Euan's history dissertation, designing and laying out the pages on her computer at midnight. She laughs when I accuse her of being a techie. "Do you not know about my great skills at IT? I was the first chairman of the Bar's IT committee. I'm very proud of that. And I enjoy playing with my Powerpoints. Are you not impressed by them?" Most mornings Cherie was up at 7am, writing her speeches and working on their presentation.

As we move into other buildings, where the children are younger, the distress is more evident. There are two small rooms, with space for no more than a double bed in each, in which 16 of the unaccompanied infants sleep huddled together. Cherie moves right in and sits among them and when a little boy starts wailing at the sight of all the towering strangers, she takes him on to her lap and comforts him. He doesn't let go of her hand for the rest of the tour.

We move on to meet the widows, who tell their harrowing stories. A number of them have lost their sight since the earthquake devastated their lives, as though they have been struck blind not dumb by what they have witnessed. One woman weeps inconsolably and her tears flow throughout the meeting. Her whole family was wiped out by the earthquake and she cannot forgive herself since it was she who persuaded her brother to visit her with his children. She was out in the fields working while at home were her two daughters, two sons, her grandchildren, nephews and nieces and brother... all of them lost. There is a look of real distress on Cherie's face as the interpreter recounts this, and she reaches out to hold the woman's hand. "Tell her it's not her fault, can you?" She asks each woman what she wants - to stay in the refuge or go back to what's left of their villages, are they being trained, and so on. When I comment on how much she en­gages with everyone she meets, she puts it down to the women in her family: "My mother and my grand­mother were always very interested in people and what made them tick - endlessly fascinated by life."

We arrive at the Prime Minister's house for pre-dinner drinks and a meeting of various health ministers, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistan High Commissioner in London - a well-respected figure who was in New York during 9/11 and is said to have played a pivotal role in influencing the Pakistan Government's subsequent decision to work with the United States - and various other political figures.

The hum of noise from a connecting room becomes louder, and we walk in to meet diplomats, senators, heads of NGOs, police officers, a general, two commercial pilots, two fighter pilots in their early twenties, the governor of the Central Bank... all women. As Cherie says in her speech, she would be hard-pushed to present such an impressive roll-call in London... "I'm sure this means that your society will be on the up and up."

Around my table are some faces that I recognise from the first lunch. Zarine Aziz is the president of the First Women Bank. Why is it, she asks, that Western journalists perpetuate the myth that all wom­en in Pakistan are dumb and downtrodden? Why, when there have always been strong women of influence. Benazir Bhutto? Oh, long before her, Zarine waves her hand dismissively. The other wom­en agree that they feel misrepresented by our media. Look at the part Fatima Jinnah played, the sister of the founder of Pakistan in 1947, they say. The new quota that was introduced in 2003 of women councillors at local level was 33 per cent, which translates into 30,000 new women councillors. In the National Assembly, 60 women are assured places out of a total of 342 MPs.

We troop downstairs for a fashion-cum-culture show. It's been a long day and it's now around 11pm but Cherie is still looking perky and smiley in the front row. The models are well-known local actors, all doe eyes and Bollywood strained sincerity. There's a wildly exuberant twist on the Raj - a handsome young man is dressed, frankly absurdly, in puce britches, turquoise waistcoat and lime cravat, with some sort of codpiece device. He fixes Cherie with a devastating smoulder, and when she gives him a distinctly bawdy look back, he is so flabbergasted, he breaks out laughing. This, no doubt, would be considered evidence by some of Mrs B's vulgar streak, but it does lighten proceedings. When we tease her about her flirtatious behaviour, she gamely joins in. As she says to one of the women we meet in a less glam­­orous setting a day or so later, "Everyone's entitled to a bit of fun."

Although Cherie's main brief in Pakistan is to raise awareness of breast cancer, as a guest of the Government she is also expected to make appearances at other events. This raises the question that exercises her critics, namely, where does her role as Ms Cherie Booth blend into that of Mrs Cherie Blair. Although she has undeniably achieved a great deal in her own right as Cherie Booth QC, would she really have had the red-carpet treatment (as well as the first-class plane tickets), were she not the wife of the Prime Minister?

Left to her own devices, my guess is that she would have chosen to spend more time in Pakistan seeking out the company of ordinary women - "a horrible phrase", she says, but we know what she means - and less high-society hobnobbing. It's where she certainly seems most comfortable. This is partly to do with what she once referred to as "the little bit of grit" in her faith, particularly in its social teaching, which is part of its enduring appeal to her - and one of the reasons why she wanted to raise her children as Catholics. When I asked her to explain this, she said: "It's not quite the same these days where everyone seems to be Catholic as far as I can see... but certainly when I was growing up, to be a Catholic was something that meant you were not part of the Establishment. And so, being from a fairly humble family myself, and knowing that my children are having a pretty privileged life, I don't want them to be simply part of the Establishment."

The next morning's seminar is on women's entrepreneurship and development. In front of the LokVirsa cultural centre are many stalls covered with all manner of different handicrafts. Gifts are thrust upon her at every stall - "What a lovely doll, thank you. Wherever I go in the world, I always bring back a doll for my daughter"; "It's a dear little camel. My son Leo will love it"; "All these bangles, really?"

Cherie says she can't claim to be an entrepreneur herself but "I'm a mother and a working woman - a barrister specialising in human rights - apart from being the wife of a prime minister... I feel passionately that equality for women is an end in itself but the advancement of women helps everyone... women hold up half the sky... It's a long journey ahead but the longest journeys start with the smallest steps. And remember, you're not just helping yourself, you're helping everyone. Thank you."

We set off to view room after room of artefacts. It's a chaotic gallop, Cherie attempting to say something meaningful about each tableau as the crowd pushes her relentlessly on, the heat, the confusion, and then we're out and running to get into our car so we can make it to the airport to catch a plane to a destination that is so top secret no one has yet mentioned its name.

We were able to have our informal lunch in a restaurant the previous day because our flight was cancelled due to inclement weather. So today we board the UN plane which makes two journeys a day to Kabul. Cherie is reading a book on Catholicism. That evening she has a private service with the papal nuncio, to which we are invited to participate. But none of us non-believers feels that it would be quite right to sit in. One of her advisers stresses several times that Cherie would have preferred to go to a public service - but it seems clear that her hosts would have considered this too much of a security risk.

We are greeted at the airport by a number of armoured tanks and a great many men with rifles. Our first stop is the Al Fatah School in the old Russian quarter - one of the largest girls' schools in Kabul with 8,000 pupils, from the age of 7 to 18, and in some cases, 21. In the staffroom, Cherie asks the director what she most needs for the school. The list ranges from the optimistic - a science lab - to the more achievable volleyballs and basketballs, which Cherie commits to sending. On a table, there are books provided by the British Council: Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in 80 Days and Hard Times.

Throughout the years of the Taleban, the director continued to teach: "We met secretly and if we had been caught, our men would have been punished - not us. But we put up resistance and we never gave up. In the Taleban years, there were no desks or chairs but the girls would bring the bed clothes from their homes and sit on the ice so that they could learn."

We walk past empty, abandoned rooms filled with blocks of cement and rubbish and into a room where two girls are sitting at a table and reading - one a copy of the Koran, the other a comic with pictures of movie stars. For all her rallying cries of "Remember - girls can do anything", it was this vivid illustration of the limited range of options available to them which really seemed to depress Cherie when we talked about the visit afterwards.

Into the playground - or, at least, open ground since there doesn't seem to be any equipment for play - Cherie links arms with the director, a wide-faced, indomitable woman with a simple manner, and wishes her luck. "It's very important what you're doing," she says, looking at her face intently. "And you're a very brave woman to have worked through the years of the Taleban."

Later that day, Cherie arrives from a private meeting with Pres­ident Karzai, on whom there has been a recent assassination attempt - since when his wife, Dr Zenat Karzai, who was trained as a gynaecologist, has been a virtual prisoner in her own home. The discussion around the table of human rights commissioners and lawyers is fascinating - like watching history unfurl. The main thrust seems to be that there is little confidence in the government, the police are seen as corrupt oppressors, torture in prisons is still going on, the legal system is a bad joke... and landlords and warlords are ruling rural communities.

We are whisked off to the compound of the President's palace to a lunch hosted by Dr Zenat Karzai and attended by various women MPs who have been elected as part of Afghanistan's new quota system. Mrs Karzai is youthful-looking, with an air of sweet sorrowfulness. While woman after woman around the table speaks in an urgent torrent of words, she remains silent. The MPs are telling us how the men wouldn't even acknowledge them during their first days in parliament, only instructing them to sit behind them. But the women insisted that they were their equals and would sit where they pleased. Now the men speak quite freely to them and seem to take their presence for granted. An MP says that it was funny to see one of the fiercest warlords - famous for his legend "To kill you is easy" - flanked by women.

For the first time, Cherie is looking tired, drained and slightly ratty. But then by now, everyone in the party is beginning to feel the strain. She hardly meets my eye and I wonder whether there's trouble brewing back home. We arrive in Lahore to a military band playing Strang­ers in the Night, more dignitaries, more bouquets of flowers, more smiling for the cameras. There's a "quiet" lunch at the home of an old friend from the Bar, with a convoy of a dozen vehicles, including an ambulance and two armoured trucks of the Special Comman­do team with their snazzy black ELITE T-shirts (Cherie thinks these should be ad­opted by her blokes from Special Branch), road blocks, marksmen on the roofs.

After another day of visits and speechmaking, that evening there is another - very swanky (£100 a ticket) - Pink Ribbon fashion show and dinner, hosted by the Governor of the Punjab. The buzz around the tables is that her breast-awareness campaign is making an impact. One woman says she has heard the word "breast" men­t­ioned on television for the first time in living history. Another says the Governor doesn't seem to be able to stop saying the word. People are moved by the humanity of her speech and by how natural she is.

The next day we're on to the launch of a pro bono legal project, which has been the initiative of yet another amazingly effective twentysomething, a solicitor trained in London, Mahnaz Malik. Its main imperative, Malik says, is to tackle the problem of the thousands of innocent children who are being jailed - sometimes for years without trial - and forced to share cells with adult criminals. The families of these children have no access to legal assistance.

Cherie gives a good and clever talk, with her trusty Powerpoint, illustrating that the quality of justice is not strained - and stressing the crucial role the judiciary can play in improving society - while managing to avoid offending her hosts. "People say that human rights is a Western construct foisted on others. But that's not true. Equality, dignity, respect and justice are as much an integral part of the Islamic tradition."

It's our last day and we're off in helicopters again, this time to the North West Frontier. Looking down on the hills and valleys, with the houses dotted so few and far between, does make you question what impact all those high-powered, reforming women can have on the vulnerable, uneducated women who live in these remote communities. We land first in Chakothi, which is a transit point close to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. When Dr Lodhi acts as interpreter for the villagers who have been asked what they need most of all - after water, hospitals and schools, it is always (this delivered with her knowing smile) "...oh yes, and freedom for Kashmir".

The security is fiercer here - army, police, it is hard to tell the difference - men with guns, anyway, shoving us into the back of Jeeps, grab on to a bar if you can, hurry hurry hurry. Since the earthquake, there have been landslides, which means the road is usually closed. It's difficult to get materials in to rebuild the school which is still being housed in tents. Cherie arrives, rose petals are thrown over her head and a garland of red, pink and white roses is placed around her neck.

Into the first tent which smells of animal dung. She asks the little girls, "What are you doing? Reading? Do you like reading? Shall we do the alphabet? That's excellent [e x c e l l e n t, they spell out in a chant] and so clever [c - l - e - v - e - r]."

Cherie is taken to meet the parents of the children - the mothers sitting together in one area; the fathers in another. We are circled, in this stricken valley, by the lovely green embrace of mountains which are capped in snow in the distance. The women see that the guest of honour is really interested in what they have to say, and one by one they rise from their seats until she is surrounded. Cherie tells them it is their right to speak out - which makes the women smile - and that she will keep an eye on the rebuilding of their school, and that she's happy "to see that the men are so docile. I'm sure they give you no trouble." The men, one cannot help noticing, are not smiling.

Our final destination is Balakot, the area which was devastated by the earthquake, and the last tent we visit is the Adult Literacy Centre. We squeeze into the packed space, and sit crosslegged on the floor with the women who have been learning reading, writing and arithmetic... two hours a day, for 180 hours. The test is for a woman to be able to read a newspaper without assistance. Cherie asks if she can see their work. A woman, who was illiterate three months ago, inches her finger across the column of a newspaper article - voicing the words as she goes. What would she like to do now that she can read? The woman says she wants to learn English.

Another mother says that she is able to help her children with their homework, since she has completed her course. Cherie asks her age - which is 35 - and then tells her she is 51 since "it's only fair to tell her mine, too", Another woman gets up to do some simple sums on the blackboard. Cherie suggests that she adds her age to the 35-year-old's. Painfully slowly, taking her time as though her life depended on it, she drags on the chalk to form the letter six and to the left, a very wobbly eight. That was the moment when a tiny step felt like a giant stride towards the possibilities of hope.

Back in Islamabad, at the end of the day before our night-time flight, we sit down to a formal interview in the living room of the British High Commiss­ioner's residence, where Cherie has been staying.

It has been my belief that this will be a one-on-one, so I'm somewhat surprised to see not one but two assistants - Sue Geddes and Sara El Nusairi - sit down on chairs at the back of the room; particularly as they have already positioned their own tape recorder on the table along­side mine. In retrospect, it was probably quite a useful misunderstanding since it enabled me to catch a glimpse of the steel behind Cherie's warmth. It is no exaggeration to say that her face darkened when I asked her why she felt it necessary to have an audience. (I wondered who was more frightened by what Cherie might say - she or they?).

She said words to the effect that it was normal protocol for someone in her position to have a press assistant sitting in - which, to be fair, it probably is. Norma Major had someone with her, she added, when Cherie interviewed her for The Goldfish Bowl, her book on Downing Street spouses. It takes a good 15 minutes - half our allotted time - to get back to the easy to-and-fro which has made my dealings with her so pleasant. Indeed, she is so accustomed to asking questions that I have to remind her (and myself) that we are in interview mode.

What has surprised her most about the trip? "Hmm. I suppose I wasn't surprised to find the women interesting and into all sorts of different areas... perhaps what did surprise me was to find that the men were more accepting of that than I thought."

What one has to wonder is how much of it is pretty words and how much of it will be action? Although it's interesting, perhaps, that they feel those are the right words to express? "I think the fact they want to use that language is important and shows some progress at least. Some people are paying lip service, I'm sure. But I've met the President a few times, and Mrs Musharraf, and actually, I think he's made those words before and he has delivered on some things. For example, the women's quota. I mean, that's a huge thing and it wouldn't have been done unless he wanted it to be done."

Where did the pressure come for the President to do it? After all, we hardly think of him as an enlightened feminist or a human rights person (in 2005 the President caused an international outcry when he was reported to say of an alleged gang-rape: "A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped"). "No... no..." (It must be tricky remaining true to yourself, without badmouthing your host.) "He probably sees it as a way of making sure this country doesn't become more extreme Islamist." Pressure from the United States? "That's what the international community wants, that's for sure, but I also think he wants this country to be a secular state and therefore empowering women is one way of doing that."

Did she notice a certain sullenness from the men in the rural areas? She says that that they were noticeably quiet but some of that might have been cultural. "I was careful to put my hand out to them but only shake their hand if they indicated that's what they wanted. Some of them clearly didn't, not because they were being nasty but because I'm a woman and in their culture they might not want to touch me." She did concede that the other reason may well have been that she was so clearly focusing her attention on the women. She was very heartened by the sight of the women doing the electrics during a visit to a retraining programme in the earthquake zone. "OK, they weren't being taught how to wire up a new house but learning how to mend household appliances and be self-sufficient makes total sense, doesn't it? Remember that many of those women would be widows, and if they don't know how to do that, who is going to do it, in a society where women can't just ask a stray man in to help?"

Her own household skills are not all that hot. So is Tony any good? "Oh no," she laughs. "If anyone did change the fuse in our house, it was me, not Tony. But I'm not claiming that I'm an electrician." We talk about all the shocking practices against women we have heard about during our stay. In the Hadud law, sex between any two people, outside marriage, is considered adultery (although Dr Lodhi stresses this law is under review). If a woman is raped, unless there are four male witnesses to confirm her story, she will be accused of committing adultery. The honour killings and such are all tied up with the question of whether a woman has shamed the honour of her family: "So if you've been perceived to have been flirting, the reprisal could be the complete disfigurement of your face," Cherie says. In Bangladesh, she says, the most popular punishment against women is to fling the acid from car batteries on their faces.

In some of the tribal areas, if there's a dispute between two families, the local form of justice is that a daughter will be taken as compensation. "At the end of army rule, the General [ie, the President] had taken [these practices] out of the family law and put them into this special Hadud law which is particular to the Islamic law. So it makes it much more difficult now for the Government to repeal a law which is perceived to be Islamic."

Do we call Pakistan a military dictatorship? "No, we don't. We certainly don't." But he did seize power... (in a military coup in 1999). "But there have been elections since." Nevertheless, some people do still call it that. (Imran Khan, for one, in this magazine - who has his own political ambitions, of course - recently described the regime as "a military dictatorship with a democratic façade".) Says Cherie: "Pakistan has been restored to the Commonwealth and is working its way towards a fully non-military involvement. This is the question of whether [Musharraf] should continue to be General. [If he is re-elected.] And certainly our policy remains that he should not."

As a human rights lawyer, and a passionate human rights activist, how would you weigh up the compromises involved in visiting a country whose regime you disapproved of, with the good you feel you could do for the people who are living there?

"Well, that's - um - that's - always a - I mean - that's always a ques - um... To some extent, I feel, particularly in relation to women - that sometimes just by going to these places and showing your face and talking about women's issues, at least you're both, hopefully, giving some sort of encouragement to those who are pushing those issues, and making people who are against those issues face up to the realities. But there's only so much you can do, and in the end, it has to come from the country itself." We move on to more general questions. It has been made clear that questions relating to the Prime Minister's policies are off-limits. I wonder whether there's part of you that thinks it will be a tremendous relief when you leave Downing Street; do you think you will regain part of yourself?

"I don't know about that. I mean, ever since I got married, I've been Mrs Blair - who's the wife of Tony Blair and the mother of..." Aha, I am reminded of her slightly poignant quote: "I started life as the daughter of someone, now I'm the wife of someone, so I'll probably end up the mother of someone." Does that suggest you feel that you will never be able to be seen as a person in your own right?

"Certainly I feel that as Cherie Booth, QC, the law is my thing, isn't it? And within the law... well, it'll be 30 years this year since I qualified as a lawyer."

Do you think you might like to become a politician? "A politician?" You're looking at me as though you think I must be crazy. A deep, rich laugh. Well, you did think about it at one time. "No, I did. [She was a candidate for Thanet North and lost; the year Tony gained his seat at Sedgfield.] And I'm fascinated by politics but I've lived 26 years in politics - more than that because I've always been interested. But, you know, you can change the world through the law, too, and that's the path I've chosen."

Have you been paid to come here? "No. As you know, we're guests of the Government. That means they paid for our flights and, well, actually, not our hotels since we stayed here." No fees for any of the talks? "No. No. In fact that's the norm. I do these things all the time and I don't get paid for them." (Although sometimes she does - as in last year's controversial speaking tour in Australia for a children's cancer charity when she was reportedly paid a fee of £100,000.)

Do you think you could have married or fallen in love with someone who didn't have a faith? "Not all the people I went out with were particularly religious but it was one of the things that Tony and I had in common from the beginning. One, was an interest in politics and the Labour Party, and the other was in the spiritual. And we both still retain both those interests."

You've said on a number of occasions that your first love was history but that you felt that if you studied it at university (as her two older sons, Euan and Nicholas, have; Kathryn is showing interest in following in the thespian footsteps of her maternal grandparents), you would end up a teacher; an idea that clearly filled you with dread.

"I know. What a terrible thing to say because I think education is so important. But I think the ethos in the Sixties from the nuns was that you would go into teaching and you'd become good Catholic mothers. I haven't got anything against good Catholic mothers and I've tried to be one myself but I wanted to do something a bit more bold."

Enrolling at the London School of Economics - which certainly had a reputation in the late Sixties for political radicalism - must have been Cherie's way of giving two fingers to the nuns. If you have a rebellious streak, where does it come from? "My husband always says - and heaven forbid that he ever disagrees with me - that I'm a bolshie Scouser. Maybe that's the explanation." He doesn't really call you that. "He does! But I always point out to him that I think the women from the North West are very strong and independent. A surprising number of women High Court judges come from the North West."

We talk about her being brought up by strong women herself. Her parents, Gale and Tony, met at RADA and toured together in a repertory company in North Wales, where he played the juvenile boy lead and she was the juvenile girl lead. Cherie was brought up by her grandmother and aunt while her mother was away touring. After the birth of her second daughter, Lyndsey, Gale stopped acting. Did she miss the theatre? "Yes, absolutely. And if you asked me why I feel very strongly about women's empowerment and why women have to be independent, it's partly because my mum found herself abandoned by my father and had to go out to work. First of all in a fish and chip shop and then in Lewis's, a big department store in Liverpool, and that was because she had to work to keep my sister and me."

I ask her, just for fun, whether she finds Bill Clinton sexy. Mass squawking from all the women present. "Well, I can see what people see in Bill Clinton," Cherie says, panting with laughter, "but as you may have noticed - um - I enjoy - niceyoungmen!" Do you think any of your children will go into politics? Have they expressed any interest at all? "They're all interested and they're all members of the Labour Party, for example." Would you mind if they were members of the Tory Party? "It's up to them. Let's just say that I'm pleased they're all members of the Labour Party so I don't have to worry about it. They're interested in the world and they've had a wonderful chance to have an insight into the world."

Finally, what do you think you will miss when you leave No 10? "It's difficult for me to know yet. I'm going to wait and see when it comes. One thing I can say is that it's such an opportunity and a privilege and you do get a chance to make a difference - which is partly what this trip has been about." Will you continue to do so through your charity work? "If they want me to because I think you should always try to make a difference if you can and so it depends on what opportunities come along. But it's not... well, it's not over yet, darling!"

Before I went to Pakistan, there was so much secrecy and high security around the trip that there hadn't been an opportunity to gauge people's responses to Cherie; a woman so much in the public eye, she has no need of a surname to identify her. But back in Britain, even before the hair business, I was left in no doubt at all about her unpopularity. I spoke to lawyers, academics, actors, architects, singers, house­wives, secretaries and, of course, other journalists. Although most of them voted Tony Blair in, a couple of them said they would not be voting Labour in the next election. The central point of their disenchantment was undoubtedly the Iraq war, but they also seemed to blame his wife for somehow symbolising everything they disliked about the current regime. These are some of the words they used to describe her: "mad", "vile", "manipulative", "power-mad" and "dreadful to look at".

One person asked, "How can such a smart woman be so stupid?" In all my years of interviewing - a cast list that includes Jeffrey Archer, Donald Trump and Imelda Marcos - I have never encountered such overt and sustained hostility to a subject. Before our travels, I shared some of their misgivings but did not judge her quite so harshly. Her apparent reliance on Carol Caplin made me feel uneasy (Peter Foster and the flats didn't help). But I also understood how a woman in Cherie's position and with her natural temperament - a swottish bluestocking, in some ways ("There's no need for lipstick in the law") - might come to rely on someone who could take care of all the packaging involved in being the wife of a modern prime minister.

Hairgate was part of this, of course. But since I have had the odd snip at Michaeljohn, where her hairdresser Andre Suard works, I know that a day rate of 200-odd quid was a deal. (Andre wasn't on the trip to Pakistan, although I was told that Cherie had asked for him to come, but the budget wouldn't stretch to it.) The holidays chez-Berlusconi and Cliff Richard were similarly off-putting. So, let's just say, I wasn't an uncritical devotee of Cherie before I had the chance to observe her at close quarters for a week. However, I also felt that she was good-hearted, a genuine champion for women and the underprivileged, and someone who had achieved a great deal through the force of her own intelligence and efforts - and that these qualities were perversely and consistently overlooked in favour of concentrating on her defects.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then Cherie is stuffed. The constant refrain from anyone who has actually met her, is that she is so much more attractive in person than in photographs - which do not do justice to her flawless, milky skin (this she attributes, she tells me, to drinking 2 litres of water daily), her handsome eyes and, often, strikingly sweet expression. Part of her appeal is the way she is so animated. But this is the very thing that produces such unflattering pictures.

One or two people told me how much they loathed the way she hung on to her husband's arm in public. But Cherie is a touchy-feely person and, from what I saw, reaches out to make physical contact with anyone she warms to. In Pakistan, one of Cherie's aides told me that one of the reasons Mrs B is keen to usher other people into her photo opportunities is that it distracts her from feeling so nervous. Like Tracey Emin, whose response to a camera is to pull a lopsided grin, Cherie's face tends to freeze into a panicky rictus; hence all the references to her being Cruella De Vil et al.

Spending so much time with her, however, left me in no doubt about the genuine, empathic parts of her personality, and it would be difficult for anyone to dissemble for so long while being watched so carefully. The different people who work with her seem very attached to her and her husband, which speaks well of them both. Although she is clearly by no means a saint. I asked one of the retinue whether Cherie ever spoke harshly, and the response was "No, but she sometimes speaks carelessly, which can be hurtful." I am still left with a feeling of being tremendously privileged to have met so many impressive women in Pakistan and Afghan­istan at such a key point in their battle for personal freedom and democracy, but feel daunted by how far they have to go - and how tenuous that progress may prove to be. But as Cherie said, "The longest journeys start with the smallest steps."