When an English barrister throws down her wig and joins a chorus line of complete strangers up a mountain there's something odd afoot. By Emma Daly
Why did Tony Blair fly Concorde to Denver? Because Cherie could not leave work early enough for a slower flight - or so one wag suggested. But more important, why did Cherie decide to join the media circus thrashing around the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia?

The delights of the Rocky Mountain scenery, dinner at the adobe Fort restaurant and Tony wearing denim must be measured against the hideous scrutiny to which summit wives are subjected by journalists underwhelmed by the business of the day and ludicrous photocalls. Neither Mrs Kohl nor Mrs Chirac showed up in Denver. You probably wouldn't have caught Norma Major there either, if she were still Mrs PM. She was forced to act as hostess at the London G7 summit of 1991, but determined from then on to miss such events, on the sensible grounds that wives never achieved anything. "What is the point of spending taxpayers' money to send me along?" Norma asked.

She missed all subsequent G7 summits - from Munich in 1992, where Hannelore Kohl, previously known as a homely hausfrau, charmed and outshone her guests, to Lyons in 1996, where Bernadette Chirac had arranged a lesson in how to cook "Puree d'artichauts au foie gras" (probably not of much interest to one who we know to freeze grated cheese).

Cherie Blair will not have to appear too often at such gatherings - she will not be invited to most, which take place under European Union auspices. The EU does not invite spouses to its formal summits because they are intended to be working meetings with no time for socialising.

Mimi Papandreou, the starlet who (eventually) married Greece's ageing premier, was an exception to the rule - one EU hand remembers her turning up at several summits. "She accompanied him to the very entrance of the meeting room - he was very weak - and she was also waiting outside to get him back to the room," the official said.

But for now, Cherie is probably happy to be there, being a wife. She has survived the punishing scrutiny of the election campaign - primarily by following the example of Denis Thatcher and saying nothing in public that could possibly embarrass the PM.

"Cherie is enjoying such a honeymoon that she must want to do it," says Scarlett MccGwire, a media consultant who has helped many politicians to adjust their images in a television age. "If you or I were in that position it would be very interesting to see how the couples on the world stage operate," she adds. "If my bloke were prime minister, I'd probably go once just to see what it was like.

"Cherie is a career woman and a very loving wife, both at the same time," says MccGwire. "She sees those two roles as completely compatible, and therefore going to Denver as a wife seems perfectly reasonable."

Furthermore, she has no difficulty distinguishing between Mrs Tony Blair and Cherie Booth QC, the main bread-winner. The latter stays well out of the public eye; the former is happy to be known as the adoring wife at Number 10.

Hillary Clinton bows to nobody as a diligent summit attender. She has done them all. She was practically the only wife to show up at the G7 in Naples in 1994, though Veronica Berlusconi, wife of the Italian prime minister, saw her social programme crumble as Hillary declined the official invitation to the ballet (Swan Lake) and instead toured the Amalfi coast with her mother.

One imagines she was pleased to see Cherie in Colorado. They seem to have struck up something of a friendship during the Clintons' recent visit to London.

The two women, both high-powered lawyers, had lunch together before visiting the Globe theatre. Apparently, they got on like a house on fire, and Hillary was clearly unfazed by the media judgment that Cherie beat her hands down in the fashion stakes. They wore similar outfits, but Cherie's was chicer.

This was true of Colorado too - in the Stepford-esque group photo, in which the wives are arm-in-arm and smiling spontaneously on cue, both Hillary and Cherie are wearing trouser suits, the former in stone, the latter in turquoise. Their colour themes were adopted by many of the other women who got together on the Ski Train for rides up to resort towns in the Rocky Mountains.

They make a strange picture, though perhaps less strange than the one of the Clintons and Blairs, in which Hillary is examining Cherie's necklace while their hubbies look on with fond approval - very Fifties, very safe.

Cherie may be enjoying herself, but Hillary Clinton probably needs these wholesome images to be disseminated - her place is on her husband's arm in a way that Cherie's need never quite be. For while women in the United States are encouraged to be aggressive go-getters on the work front, they are also supposed to fit the Norman Rockwell view of the world, baking apple pies and devoting their lives to the kids.

Cherie, the lawyer who continues to work despite her husband's elevation to Downing Street, seems much more at ease with her dual role, happy to be known as the adoring wife at No 10.

Hillary too was more successful a lawyer than her husband, but she found herself vilified for her suggestion that the US was electing "two for the price of one" and her assertion that she was not staying home to bake cookies. She has taken such a beating that it is hard to tell if her wifely presence at summits is down to desire or political necessity.

Over the years she has swung between being asset and liability; in that she is unusual. Many political wives are distinct improvements on their husbands; sometimes they are essential political assets. The classic recent example of wife as summit asset was, of course, Raisa Gorbachev, who showed consummate skill at flirting with the Western press as Reagan and her husband started thawing the Cold War. As she was intelligent, educated and modern, she helped to make her husband look flexible and liberated. Watching the wife was one way of assessing the man, and a jolly side-effect was the rage it inspired in the chilly, forbidding breast of Nancy Reagan.

But perhaps all this, at least in the case of the ubiquitous Hillary, has a much more banal explanation. Perhaps world politics is less pertinent than petit bourgeois togetherness.

Most US workers are entitled to only two weeks holiday a year, so many will attend conventions and professional conferences in distant cities as an excuse to get away with the family. Such gatherings routinely offer day trips and the like for spouses and children, so they are entertained during business meetings.

Perhaps one day Tony and the kids will find themselves at an American lawyers' convention - guest speaker C Booth. In the meantime, Denver stretched the boundaries in one important respect. Bill Clinton's insistence on a country & western theme (the guests' hat sizes were taken) meant the boys, for once, were sartorially more embarrassed than their wives.

Helmut Kohl (summit widower) and Boris Yeltsin refused to don cowboy gear. Tony Blair entered into the spirit of the thing by appearing in jeans, cowboy boots and checked shirt, but even he left his complimentary Stetson back at the hotel. And Cherie proved herself by opting out of the fancy dress and wearing an elegant, urban evening dressn