JANE ASHDOWN joked last week that she would be "locking up the cookery books" now that Paddy had decided to step down. The Liberal Democrat leader's wife may not want her husband attempting to make marmalade and Victoria sponges, but she is clearly delighted that he has agreed to spend more time with his family.

She was "extremely relieved" that he would not contest his Yeovil seat at the next election, she said through gritted teeth after he announced his resignation. "We never see him, we never see the kids, we never see each other. Weekends belong to the party as well as the week. Need I say more?"

Mrs Ashdown has never found it easy to be the politician's wife. She has been cast as the stereotypical loyal spouse ever since she stood by "Paddy Pantsdown", in 1992, after he admitted having an affair with his secretary. But she has never been comfortable in the role. "It's pretty bloody when you are wandering around doing a little shopping with your husband and people stop you and nudge," she once told the Daily Mail.

At the last election, the Liberal Democrat leader made it clear that his wife would not be involved in the "nonsense" of dressing up for photo calls. Unlike John Major's electoral "secret weapon" Norma, Jane Ashdown has never broadcast to the nation culinary tips about freezing grated cheese, or written a book on Chequers. Unlike Cherie Blair, she has never been photographed going to the gym, or become a role model for career women.

Mrs Ashdown gave up her ambition to be an interior designer as soon as she got married at the age of 21. Instead she accompanied her husband around the world on three foreign postings in 10 years. Since the first of their three children were born, she has devoted herself to the family. When Paddy gave up his career in the Marines, and became unemployed for a while, she earned pounds 25 a week picking apples.

When asked what she planned to do after he announced his affair she said: "I have beds to change, washing up and washing to do." She spends most of her time at their rose-clad cottage in Somerset, visiting the London home one week in three to fill the freezer and "clean the whiskers from around the bath". Friends say she is fascinated by politics, and feels passionately about education, housing and animal rights. She has sometimes expressed a desire to become a local councillor. Maybe Paddy could go round the ward knocking on doors for her.