May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

THREE YEARS AGO WHEN AMBITIOUS young Tony Blair was tapped to be the leader of Britain’s Labour party, a well-wisher cornered Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth, at a victory celebration in Sedgefield, the town Blair represents in Parliament. If her husband one day became prime minister, the townsman asked Booth, did she plan to give up her job? Booth, who earns an estimated $320,000 a year as one of London’s most prominent lawyers, fixed him with a crossexaminer’s gaze. “And can you tell me,” she asked, “one good reason why I should?”

Obviously, Booth hasn’t heard one yet. On May 1, British voters swept Labour into office with a resounding victory over the ruling Conservatives, making Blair, 44, the nation’s youngest prime minister in 185 years—and Booth (who has always used her maiden name) the first P.M.’s wife ever to have her own career. Despite her ambition, intellect and feminist views, friends insist that Booth, 42, whom Conservative critics love to paint as a British Hillary Clinton, has neither the desire nor the time to involve herself in politics. “Cherie would never think of it,” says her friend Labour peer Baroness Jay, adding that Britain’s only First Lady is the Queen. “It’s just not done [here].”

No sooner had Booth moved her family from their $700,000 house in London’s gentrified Islington neighborhood into 11 Downing Street (No. 10, the prime minister’s traditional home, is too small for her, Blair and their children, Euan, 13, Nicholas, 11, and Kathryn, 9) than she was back at work at her labor and administrative law practice. And on May 19, she resumes work as an assistant recorder (a part-time junior judge) with a docket of personal injury cases to hear. “She’s still coming into work five days a week,” says Leslie Page, senior clerk at Booth’s London chambers. “She’s a complete professional.”

To Booth, who has been the family’s main breadwinner since the early ’80s, such determination is strictly routine. Raised in working-class Liverpool, she is the daughter of former actress Gale Smith, 59, and actor Tony Booth, 65, who came to fame in the ’60s playing the acerbic son-in-law on Till Death Us Do Part, the hit British TV series that inspired All in the Family. An infamous womanizer and heavy drinker, Booth left Smith when Cherie was 7 and her younger sister Lyndsey was 5. He eventually fathered five more daughters with three other women. Smith supported her family by working at a fish-and-chip shop. Still, Cherie remained surprisingly loyal to her father. In 1979, after he was badly burned during a drunken attempt to break into his own locked flat, Cherie consoled him through 26 operations. “It was above and beyond the call of duty,” he later told The Sunday Times.

Graduating with first-class honors in law from the London School of Economics in 1975, Booth went to work in the office of a prominent London barrister. There she met guitar-playing fellow apprentice Tony Blair. “She was very different from Tony’s previous girlfriends,” says Blair biographer Jon Sopel. “Much more intellectual and much more challenging to him.” Blair, an Anglican graduate of elite schools, and Booth, a working-class Catholic convent girl, fell in love and were married in Oxford in 1980.

Ironically, Booth tried her hand at electoral politics before her husband, losing a long-shot 1983 bid as a Labour House of Commons candidate in suburban Kent. She returned permanently to law while Blair began a steady climb through the ranks to become Labour party leader in 1994. Initially, Cherie seemed to bridle at the demands and catty media scrutiny that came with Tony’s higher profile. “I’m not a clotheshorse or a frilly person,” she once told a reporter. “I live in the real world most of the time.” But Booth soon agreed to a makeover, softening her hairstyle and trimming her weight with the help of a personal trainer. Critics noted that her straightforward lawyerly manner also gave way to a good imitation of Nancy Reagan’s adoring gaze. Says historian David Starkey: “She’s a barrister, she’s a lawyer, she’s a very good actress.”

So far, the demands of being Blair’s wife haven’t slowed Booth’s own impressive rise. In 1995 she was awarded the title Queen’s Counsel at the unusually young age of 40, and last April the magazine The Lawyer named her Britain’s Legal Personality of the Year—a first for a woman. Being the prime minister’s wife will raise new challenges, but Booth’s law partner Michael Beloff seems sure that won’t be a problem. Cherie has “juggled a lot of things for a long time,” he says. “She looks fragile, but she’s got a character of steel.”


NINA A. BIDDLE in London

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