Mrs Prime Minister digs in her medium heels: The shock is not that a career wife has rebelled. The shock is that it's Norma, says Sandra Barwick

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN Norma Major was a child she had a terrifying, recurring nightmare. She dreamt she was in bed with a snake. Mere Freudian hang-up, or a frightening premonition? Tim Walker, writer of Norma, a biography (Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99), feels unable to say, but as more and more recession-struck voters see a reptilian side in the character of the Prime Minister (who is 50 today), sympathy for Mrs Major grows.

Not only does Norma seem unwittingly to have married a monochrome Machiavelli, but she also has been lumbered, because of his ambitions, with the unpaid and unwanted job of Mrs Prime Minister. The burden of being housewife to No 10 Downing Street, and No 1 Career Wife, example to all the other wives up and down the land smiling over canapes at their husbands' loathed business associates, has bowed many a woman before her. Audrey Callaghan found it lonely and impersonal; Lady Home said it turned her into a grass widow; and poor Mary Wilson refused, like Norma, to live in second time round, on the grounds that it made her sick with fear.

The job is foul, and not just for women. No one, including Denis Thatcher, has enjoyed living above the office with a partner too busy to hold 10 minutes' peaceful conversation. But Denis at least escaped being told by party image-makers to rethink his make-up, have his hair highlighted and let an expert go through his wardrobe. The civil servants did not devise for him briefings on the domestic hobbies of No 10's guests, or list evening wear for him to buy.

No selection committee ever asked Denis to turn round, as they did Norma, so they could weigh up the appeal of the candidate's spouse's bottom. No, the worst humiliations of politics are reserved for wives.

There is no shock, therefore, in the fact that a political wife has begun to rebel. The career- wife path has waned in popularity in the past 30 years: it must be 10 years since a young male diplomat confided that it was almost impossible now to find a wife of equal educational background who was prepared to surrender her job prospects and traipse around the world making small talk.

The surprise is not, then, that Mr Prime Minister is finding a vacancy at his side, but that it is not the graduate Raisa Gorbachev or the lawyer Hillary Clinton, but the famously non-feminist Norma Major who has stuck in her medium heels and refused to co-operate. 'The wives aren't going to achieve anything,' she told a friend with withering common sense as she ducked out of the G7 summit in Munich. 'What is the point in spending the taxpayer's money in sending me along, too?' Accordingly, she refused to join the international summit wives' charade, in which spouses are bused round tourist attractions and children's charities showing the cameras as much combined chic, compassion and leg as they can muster. Mrs Major thinks her time is more usefully and honestly spent descaling the Teasmade. She is right.

It is pretty clear from Tim Walker's book why it is Norma, rather than Hillary, who has taken this refreshing stand. Hillary, like Raisa, is enjoying power by proxy. Poor Mrs Major confessed during the election campaign that John rarely discussed politics with her 'and if I ever want to know something, I sometimes get a sharp answer'.

Mrs Major has been politically useful, certainly at first. She was the ideal wife to appeal to selection committees. Having a wife and family shows, as Harvey Thomas, Conservative image-maker and Norma's unofficial adviser during the election campaign, frankly points out, that a candidate is heterosexual.

If Norma had been a little less naive and normal, she might have noticed that John started as he meant to go on. On their wedding day he stunted up a photograph of himself earnestly visiting tenants in morning dress to milk the occasion in the local press for his job as Lambeth councillor. Once, when Norma was asked about her son's future job, she made a revealing remark. 'I suppose,' she said, 'feeling so manoeuvred myself, I can't bear the thought of doing that to someone else.'

The only tangible benefit Mrs Major seems to have got for herself out of John's political career is a rabbit-proof fence, put up for security, round their garden in Huntingdon. It doesn't seem much compensation for what she has lost, including her husband's company.

When John became Prime Minister she told a friend: 'Well, John has got what he wanted, hasn't he?'

What Norma Major seems to have wanted most was a close, tranquil, everyday family life - the kind that she was deprived of as a small girl when her father died. It is, as she told Nesta Wyn Ellis, her husband's biographer, too late now. John Major didn't die, he simply entered the House of Commons.

So she made her own choice. At core, it seems, Mrs Major was never the church mouse she sometimes seemed. There is a woman somewhere beneath the demure Windsmoor suits who does her own rewiring, loses her temper in a nuclear manner, throws objects at the walls, and gun blasts bunnies from the window.

That woman decided - a truly feminist choice - to follow her own path and put the remains of the family unit, herself and her children, first. It means that she has not seen much of the man marooned in No 10 who runs what is supposedly the Party of Family Values. But then, as no other man than David Mellor said to Tim Walker: 'If everyone in the Cabinet did put their marriages first every time, the Government would fall apart.'