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The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"The attack has been approved by the Tory leadership and met with dismay by Labour MPs"
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John Bercow, Conservative Home Affairs Spokesman
and Lib Dem MP Jackie Ballard discuss Cherie Blair's contributions
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Tuesday, 8 August, 2000, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Labour and Tories row over Cherie
Cherie Booth and Hilary Clinton
Cherie was accused of acting like Hillary Clinton
A bitter row has broken out between Labour and the Conservatives over the role of prime minister's wife Cherie Blair after she made public her views on political issues.


People in Britain will not put up with anyone who thinks they can be an unaccountable cross between the first lady and Lady Macbeth

John Bercow
Tory leader William Hague was accused by Labour of a "complete lack of judgment" for allegedly backing political attacks on Mrs Blair after she wrote an article defending new European human rights legislation.

Tory junior home affairs spokesman John Bercow had said Mrs Blair acted like a "cross between the first lady and Lady Macbeth" by commenting in public on the legislation.

His comments also followed news at the weekend that Mrs Blair will be chairing a fringe debate on government policy towards women at this autumn's Labour Party conference.

Misguided attack

Several fellow Tories criticised Mr Bercow's attack, saying he had been misguided in targeting Mrs Blair.

But the Buckingham MP stoutly defended his remarks and said the Tory leadership had "chosen" him to make them.

Mr Bercow - who made it to the Tory frontbench just two weeks ago - rejected claims he was chasing headlines while his boss, shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, was on holiday.

'Happy' to attack Cherie

He said: "I spoke to the chairman of the party, Michael Ancram, about this yesterday. I was chosen to do this. I am very happy to do it."

The article that provoked the attack appeared in Monday's Daily Telegraph under Mrs Blair's professional name Cherie Booth QC.

It argued in favour of the government's policy of incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law.

It was known Mrs Blair had political views of her own - she unsuccessfully stood for Parliament herself in the 1980s - but by entering them into the public domain she has run the risk of making herself a legitimate political target.

Mr Bercow said Mrs Blair had broken a "long-standing convention" that prime ministers' spouses do not use their position to promote their own political agendas.

He added: "People in Britain will not put up with anyone who thinks they can be an unaccountable cross between the first lady and Lady Macbeth."

In the famous Shakespeare play, Macbeth's wife spurs him on, with a clever mixture of pleas and taunting, to carry out an evil act to fulfil his own ambition, even after he loses his nerve.

Lack of judgment

Blair loyalist Labour backbencher Fraser Kemp said Mr Bercow's remarks were sanctioned by the highest levels of the Tory party.

"Bercow has let the cat out of the bag and confirmed that this extreme and unpleasant attack on Cherie Blair was discussed at a top-level meeting with senior Tories, including Michael Ancram," Mr Kemp said.

"This demonstrates William Hague's complete lack of judgment and shows how the Tories want to avoid the real issues, such as their taxation and spending policies, which are in tatters."

Earlier, Tory backbencher Peter Bottomley - who is married to former health secretary Virginia Bottomley - said it was "perfectly reasonable" for Mrs Blair to speak in public on subjects on which, as a leading QC specialising in employment law, she is an expert.

But he warned that she should not seek to use her legal position to bolster her husband's political situation.

"If she speaks on matters of public controversy where the government is rightly under attack, she can't claim one moment to be independent and the next to be an expert where her husband is in trouble," Mr Bottomley said.

'Unrealistic'

Fiona Buxton, author of a pamphlet on women for Conservative think-tank the Bow Group and until recently an aspirational Tory parliamentary candidate, also made clear she believed Mr Bercow had chosen the wrong target.

She told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "The Blairs have a very modern political marriage.

"I think it is really unrealistic to expect that she will not pursue her political ambitions or political interests in some way.

"I think she is not a good target."

At September's Labour conference, Mrs Blair will chair a fringe debate held by a think-tank close to New Labour, the Institute for Public Policy Research, on the subject "A marriage of convenience - Has New Labour delivered for women?"

She is not expected to be critical of the government's record on women.

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See also:

08 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Cherie accused of 'doing a Hillary'
08 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Leak warns 'out of touch' Tories
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