thirdway or the highway, sez tony to cherie

kelley kwalker2 at
Wed Mar 29 08:47:45 PST 2000

March 29, 2000


Issue Aborning at No. 10: Will Daddy Stay Home?


LONDON, March. 29 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair has spent nearly three years in office telling the British that they have to shed their fusty traditions and get with the times. Now his wife is telling him there is no better place to stage the revolution than in his own home.

Cherie Blair, 45, is seven months' pregnant with the couple's fourth child, and last week she said that she expected Mr. Blair, 46, to take some of the paternity leave that his government has just made part of British law.

Quickly closing off the exit that the singular importance of his job might afford him, she noted admiringly that the prime minister of Finland, Paavo Lipponen, 57, had stopped running his country earlier this month to spend a week at home with a newborn daughter.

"I, for one, am promoting the widespread adoption of his fine example," Mrs. Blair, a high-powered London lawyer, said at a legal forum on employment rights.

Whatever doubt there was about who was being proposed as the next fine example disappeared days later when the prime minister was questioned by John Humphrys, the nation's best known radio interviewer.

Was his wife putting any pressure on him? Mr. Humphrys wanted to know. Mr. Blair was unaccustomedly silent. "I'll take that as a yes, then," said the interviewer.

Sounding more like a dithering Hugh Grant character than the decisive prime minister of Britain, Mr. Blair said, "Of course I want to take some time with the baby when he or she comes, but I honestly don't know what to do." He then ditched the subject with a bantering reference to the Blairite solution to all ills. "I will have to find a third way through it," he said.

It is hard to imagine that path leading anywhere other than across his doorstep and into the crib room, such is the pressure that is building. "Tony Blair has a unique opportunity to lead by example, to show that fathers have a crucial role in their child's life from the moment of birth," said Julie Mellor, the chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Mary Newburn of the National Childbirth Trust was blunter, implying he would
>be a national wimp if did not seize the opportunity. "What Tony Blair does
when his baby is born will be a very powerful signal to other men about what real men do," she said.

Fiona Mactaggert, a Labor member of Parliament from Slough, said, "Of course he has got to take some leave, though I suspect he will do it in a sheepish way." Mr. Blair may be helped by the fact that he lives only one floor above the shop.

His is an intensely poll-sensitive administration, and the opinion surveys are showing that a decision to take some time at home would be particularly popular with women. There are more women in the Labor parliamentary ranks than ever before, and the party wants to maintain the favor of women, who flocked to vote for it in 1997 in record numbers.

Mr. Blair is by all accounts actively involved in the lives of his three children -- Euan, 15, Nicky, 14, and Kathryn, 11 -- and his government has made developing explicit policies for parenting and marriage one of its key pledges. On taking office in May 1997, he said, "Every area of this government's policy will be scrutinized to see how it affects family life."

Last December, Britain incorporated the European Union dictate giving new fathers the right to take up to 13 weeks off work during the first five years of their children's lives, with employers obliged to hold the jobs open during the absences, though not to pay for the leave time. A government task force is looking into broadening the benefit and mandating payments.

Family values have become a big political issue in Britain as evidence mounts that traditional structures are collapsing. The independent Family Policy Studies Center published a report this week showing that 38 percent of babies are born out of wedlock, compared with 7.2 percent in 1964, and that the number of children living in one-parent homes has trebled in 25 years, to 4.4 million from 1.4 million.

The surprise pregnancy and new debate about parental leave have focused attention on Cherie (pronounced shuh-REE) Blair, the first spouse of a British prime minister to hold a full-time job. She is widely photographed but rarely quoted, an adoring and silent first lady standing by her husband's side at official functions flashing her signature lopsided grin. She has kept her election year pledge to serve as consort when duty requires but to steer clear of politics and government and to keep working as a lawyer.

Within days of Mr. Blair's election and the family's move into the nation's most publicized residence, 10 Downing Street, she was back on the job. In her curly white wig and black barrister's robes at the Mayor's and City of London Court, she presided as an assistant recorder, or part-time judge, in an occupational compensation case involving a British aerospace worker who suffered a hernia when a machine tool drill slipped.

She practices under her maiden name Cherie Booth, and her speciality is employment law. She moves about the city with minimal fuss and receives no special treatment. That came to light last fall when she was stopped by a subway guard and forced to pay a $15 fine for having an underpaid ticket for her journey.

She had a dazzling academic record at the London School of Economics, topped all candidates in her bar exams, entered practice in 1976 and remarkably swiftly was made a Queen's Counsel in 1995, a title held by only the top 10 percent of English barristers. She plans to return to work in September, and no one doubts that she will attain her ambition to be a High Court judge.

Indications of the insulation of the British judiciary from politics abound, but one is that she was given her Queen's Council Q.C. suffix by a Conservative lord chancellor at a time when her husband had already become the high-profile leader of the Labor Party. She herself dramatized her independence by advising union leaders recently to sue the Blair government and offering to represent them if they went ahead.

If Mr. Blair had to go off salary during a leave, it would have less effect on the household income than an interruption in her paycheck would. She is thought to earn nearly three times the $175,000 that he receives as prime minister.

She is fiercely protective of her family, and last month she took out an injunction against The Mail on Sunday and sued a former nanny to prevent publication of an account of her home routine, even though it was flattering.

She has not publicly talked about life at 10 Downing Street, but shortly before the election, she gave the women's magazine Prima a brief assessment of her husband's household skills.

"He's very good at polishing shoes and has been known to cook a meal," she said. "I wouldn't say he is intimate with our washing machine," she added. "But he does know where it is."

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