Comment: The blonde leading the bland
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 07 February 1999
This was not another twist in the fascinating saga of Tory politicians' private lives - admittedly the latest, the unusual domestic arrangements of MEP Tom Spencer, takes some beating - but a feeble stunt to publicise the party's new proposals to encourage marriage.
I suppose Mr Hague cannot be blamed for parading his wife Ffion, given that Tony Blair wheels out Cherie at every opportunity. But don't these women have more important things to do than hang on their husbands' arms, not saying a word and throwing them adoring glances? One of the most irritating features of Mr Blair's administration is the way in which Ms Booth, a successful barrister and part-time judge, has been turned into a trophy wife, as though the party's spin doctors are uneasy about a marriage between two ambitious people who simply get on with their own jobs. Anything that works for Mr Blair is likely to be copied by the increasingly embattled Mr Hague, whose poll ratings remain dismal. So when the Conservative leader turned up at Westminster register office last week with exciting news about tax incentives, his wife Ffion was obliged to clutch a posy of red flowers and grin as though she was rapturously re-living her own nuptials. This might be more convincing if Mr Hague did not look like a man who has hurtled from precocious adolescence to premature middle age, without discovering the fun bit in-between. But if the couple's image was a throwback to the Fifties, Mr Hague's ideas were even worse.
Reversing his party's policy under Margaret Thatcher of not favouring married couples over single people, Mr Hague wants to use tax breaks and the benefits system to promote marriage. At a moment when more people than ever are remaining single or divorcing, this does not seem a sensible move, or indeed a fair one. Marriage is now optional in this country, as it is in much of Western Europe, and I do not think it is the business of government to make moral judgements about people's relationships through the tax system. Why should a gay couple pay more tax than Mr and Mrs Hague? Should I face fiscal penalties because I happen not to believe in marriage?
Children are another matter, but putting their interests first means not discriminating between the offspring of married and unmarried parents. Mr Hague's foray into this dangerous area reminded me of a piece of inept PR by his predecessor during the 1997 general election campaign, when John Major and his entourage descended on a hapless couple from Derry who had just tied the knot at Gretna Green. After delivering a lecture on the way in which his party intended to help state-approved unions, Mr Major asked the happy couple how they would be voting. "Sinn Fein", was the prompt reply.
This is a cautionary tale for politicians about the folly of muscling in on other people's weddings, not to mention their private lives. On Thursday, it was the turn of the recently-married Heather and John Hookway, who appeared in their bridal finery at the launch of National Marriage Week, to share a big moment with the Tories' PR machine. Sadly for the Tory leader, the pictures of the two couples appeared in Friday's papers above a Gallup poll showing that the Conservatives have comprehensively failed to dent Labour's popularity.
A radical re-think is required and the means is at hand, assuming Mr Hague has the imagination to go for it. Forget the cheesy wedding photos and the Stepford wife. What the party needs to modernise its image is a series of full-colour posters on hoardings all over the country of Mr Spencer, the disgraced MEP, and his family. It is a PR dream, embodying the most inclusive vision of family values that any political party in this country has ever dared come up with: the Tory, his Wife, his Boyfriend, her Lovers and their Daughters.
ON THE subject of PR stunts, the Tories could take a leaf out of the book of Prince Edward's fiancee, Sophie Rhys-Jones, who was pictured last week at a toy fair, holding a model of a piece of earth-moving equipment. A caption in the Times sang the praises of the manufacturer, adding at the end that its PR is handled by the company set up by the lovely Ms Rhys-Jones. This follows a recent evening outing at which she opened her coat to reveal a daring decolletage, having first positioned herself under the logo of another company for which she acts. In today's Britain, falling in love is merely the start of a long and happy photo opportunity.
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