We have all learnt new things about our loved ones while cooped up in lockdown. For Cherie Blair, the revelation that her husband can, if he sets his mind to it, actually rustle up a cheese and ham omelette has been an important one. “Yes, he can! I was quite surprised, it came out very well,” she says, through laughter. “I wouldn’t say cordon bleu, but it wasn’t actually solid.”
Tongue firmly in cheek, she adds: “I’m very proud of him.”
Tony Blair's kitchen credentials wouldn’t normally be on the agenda for an interview with his wife of 40 years, who runs a global foundation and her own law firm. But in an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine at the weekend, the former PM revealed with some degree of sheepishness that he hadn’t been contributing a great deal to domestic chores during lockdown. He hadn’t, in fact, done a load of laundry since May 1997, the month he took office. Breezing past while the interview was taking place at their Buckinghamshire home, his wife quipped: “If he tells you he does housework, he’s definitely lying.”
Today, as we meet over Zoom to discuss the negative impact of this pandemic on women, Blair is quick to tease her husband’s shortcomings on the domestic front, or "what he would probably regard as the more mundane things".
“When we were in Downing Street Tony was a very hands on father. And in the 80s, when he was a backbench MP and I was a young barrister, he did play a big role in helping to look after the kids,” she says.
“But then he became Prime Minister and our little boy [Leo, now 20] was born, and in those days the switchboard would ring up and say ‘The Prime Minister is coming back at 7pm, can you make sure the baby is ready so he can put the baby to bed, and his dinner’s ready.’ You know…” she rolls her eyes.
“And then there’d be times when 7pm would come, no Tony. 8pm would come, no Tony. Baby put to bed. Dinner ruined. And then he’d turn up and say ‘Oh, I’m sorry but I had to take a call from the President of the United States’.”
A fair excuse? “Well it is fair enough, isn’t it? Once upon time the dinner would have been in the bin, but I could see that that was actually more important.”
Surely he has got to grips with the domestic side of life by now? “The problem has been since we left Downing Street,” she says. “He’s got into the habit of thinking that whatever he does is more important. Reeducation is a process that, I’m afraid, is still going on.”
It could be a little galling, I imagine, still being asked to reveal mundane details about your home life more than a decade after your husband left Number 10. Not for Cherie. Partly because by now it’s very much water off a duck’s back, but also because she believes it vitally important that people like them talk about this sort of thing: “The more we talk about it, the more we see men talking about it, [the quicker] it stops being women’s work.”
For the past four months, the Blairs have been in lockdown in the Buckinghamshire home they bought after Tony left office in 2008, with two of their three sons - Leo (whose first year at Oxford has been disrupted by the pandemic) and Nicky (a solicitor), as well as Nicky’s wife (a divorce lawyer) and their two small children. The Blairs’ nanny of 22 years who is “a member of our family”, has been with them, too. There has been a cooking rota. And aside from having the gardener they have, it seems, muddled through much like everyone else.
Her sons, she says, are more modern men than their father. “[Nicky is] a very hands on father and actually does cook. And he cleans up afterwards as well. So yes, definitely an improvement.”
The pandemic has, she feels, revealed how caring and cleaning roles are "the bedrock of what makes the rest of us able to go on and do what to us, at least, is more interesting work. It’s an important job and I hope that one of the things we recognise in the future is how much we rely on the people that do that.”
Blair, 66, comes across as she always did - thoroughly normal. When her husband took office, he brought with him the first young, middle class family in Downing Street for generations. Leo was the first baby to be born to the wife of a serving British Prime Minister in over 150 years - a fact that was rattled off when Boris Johnson’s fiancé, Carrie Symonds, gave birth this April.
Does she sympathise with the challenge of having a baby in Downing Street? “Yes, but of course Tony and I - and I’m sure the same applies today - were very privileged because we were able to get help.”
Raised by her grandmother and single mother (her father, the actor Tony Booth, left when she was eight) in Merseyside in the 1950s, Blair has a keen understanding of the privileged position she now finds herself in. “We’re all shaped by our back story and mine is very much about strong women, who had to stand on their own two feet and make the family work.
“Both of them were absolutely adamant that my sister and I would have opportunities they didn’t get. And they succeeded in that beyond their wildest dreams.”
It’s why releasing the potential of women has always been her passion project. The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works in lower and middle income countries, promoting female entrepreneurship. It’s an area she championed even while Tony was in government.. “[But] I have been able, since my husband stood down as prime minister, to actually use that opportunity, that platform and the knowledge I gained while in Downing Street to decide I wanted to give something back, and I chose to give that to women, and to working women.”
She believes strongly that lockdown is disproportionately affecting women, and was among more than 50 prominent figures who signed the Telegraph’s recent ‘Equality Check’ open letter, urging the Government to take steps to make women part of the conversation when it comes to policy making.
Blair has been concerned, though not surprised, by reports that women are returning to a domestic scene more akin to the 1950s than the 2020s. “There is a danger here that we could just slip back by default, the default being not that women don’t want to contribute, but they just find it’s too difficult.
“Who’s doing home-schooling? Mainly women. Men may help out. But mainly the slog and the nagging is falling on the women. Aged mother needs her shopping done now. Who’s doing that? Mainly women. Who’s doing the cleaning?”
Would she have been any good at home-schooling? Blair scoffs. “I tell you what I do think, if we’d had to home school it would have been me who had to do it, for sure.”
What we are missing, she adds, is women’s voices at the forefront of public discourse around the pandemic. “We’re not seeing enough women, we’re not hearing enough women’s experiences, and it’s not translating into policy.
“If we’d heard more from women, we may have had more priority on getting the schools open than getting the pubs open.”
She is disparaging of the Government’s handling of the crisis (though she has been impressed by cross party work on the Domestic Abuse Bill), but on a personal level is more charitable. “I do know having watched my husband become prime minister, that it is not an easy job. It’s 7 day a week, 24 hours a day - and it’s too easy to sit and criticise.”
She is also happy to admit that she and Tony have had an enjoyable time in lockdown, working away in separate rooms (she is keen to point out that her son and daughter-in-law chose to set up their home-working stations in her study, rather than join Tony).
“My highlights in lockdown have just been being able to spend a bit of time out in the beautiful sun in the garden with my grandchildren, playing in the paddling pool. They’re a huge delight to us.”
She has been sad, however, not to see their daughter Kathryn, who is about to have her first baby. Last week, they did meet up for the first time since lockdown in John Lewis in High Wycombe. “We went round with our masks, because there were some things she hadn’t been able to buy. It was a great excitement."
Blair was due to be at the birth, but now won’t be allowed into the delivery room. “That’s one of my big sadnesses. But not as tough as it is for many people, so don’t feel too sorry for me."
With that, she is off to tease her husband over "omelettegate". "He'll be furious," she says, a twinkle in her eye.