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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
The test facing Cherie
Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie
Cherie is accused of political ambitions

There is one simple test of whether or not Cherie Blair's comments, even taken in their full context, were acceptable or not.

Re-run the exchange on the day of the Omagh bombing and in the context of questions about Ireland and the IRA instead of the Middle East and Hamas.

And, of course, Downing Street realises how the words will be taken, particularly in Israel, whose embassy was swift to criticise her.

There is no need, as the prime minister pleads, to "misdescribe" her comment.

Cherie Blair
Words can be loaded
It is perfectly fair to accept that her words did not signal her support for the young suicide bombers, but were simply a statement of how they saw themselves.

But, even accepting that, the comment was hugely controversial.

Under scrutiny

In the Middle East, like Ireland, words have to be chosen exceptionally carefully and are often heavily loaded. Loose language is a recipe for disaster.

As the Israeli embassy said, any comments "which might be interpreted as expressing understanding for Palestinian terrorism" should not be made. "Interpreted" being the key word.

So, whatever her intention, Mrs Blair has sparked a major controversy.

And all this comes at a time when her role is under scrutiny like never before.

There has been concern at the fact that she regularly hosts government seminars in Downing Street.

She is often described as being far more left wing than her husband.

Limited role

And, inevitably with a successful wife, she is often said to be the real power in Downing Street and to be seeking her own political career.

Fairly or otherwise, she is regularly compared to Hilary Clinton.

Her enemies now have all the ammunition they want to attack her and demand limits to her role.

The bus blown up by Hamas suicide bomber
Suicide bomber hit school bus
But even those with no other agenda are asking why she was at this particular event in the first place and why she made any comments at all.

The charity involved may be highly-respectable, but it is also identified with the Palestinian position.

Attending any such event, even an apparently well-intentioned one, on a day when Hamas had murdered 19 Israelis, was bound to attract adverse comment.

Keep quiet

And then to make comments that could carry a political interpretation only added to the controversy.

Previous prime ministers have faced the same dilemma about what to do with their spouses.

And they have almost always come to the same conclusion - keep them quiet.

Norma Major was virtually invisible while Dennis Thatcher, apart from his famous asides, never strayed into political territory.

It must be hugely frustrating and probably feels deeply unfair to be gagged simply because you are married to the prime minister.

It is probably particularly galling to be in that position when you have a powerful and independent standing of your own.

But many people take the view that it goes with the territory.

See also:

18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
18 Jun 02 | Middle East
07 May 02 | UK Politics
08 Aug 00 | UK Politics
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