Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

'There was nothing for it but silence for Mrs Candidate'
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D minus two. For a dreadful moment Mrs Candidate realised that she had been thinking about the curtains again. That you could care about the fixtures and fittings, while still being a "serious" person was something that all men would never understand, and that female piranhas affected not to comprehend either. The simple fact was that the family was probably about to move to a new home, and someone had to think about the practicalities. With the Euro summit due within weeks of the election, she doubted whether her husband would find much time for debate about pelmets and throw rugs.

And she was feeling a bit blue again. The whole "first lady" business had been far worse than she had ever anticipated. True, the "Lady Macbeth/ Hillary Clinton" inferno - planned for her by the ex-Trotskyist in the yellow tie - had not come to anything. But the celebrity's spouse stuff was relentless and stupid. It was extraordinary how intelligent journalists could fill page after page with stuff about her clothes, hair, job, gym- going and mannerisms. Why did she not speak? Why did she not give interviews? Had she been silenced? Was she a source of secret leftiness?

Damned if she didn't. Last week the laser-eyed grande dame of Fleet Street had been allowed onto the battle bus, and had spent an hour - in a cloud of fag-ash and curiosity - chasing Mrs Candidate around the nooks and crannies of the large vehicle. There had been only one place to hide, and she had sat there for a good quarter of an hour. The result, of course, was another article - superbly written - on the strange, mouselike reticence of Mrs Candidate.

Damned if she did. Any pronouncement on virtually any subject could cause trouble from which it would take an age to recover. The very few words that she had spoken on any political topic in the last three years had all appeared in print and been analysed at length.

Nothing for it, then, but silence. Yet she was constantly being scrutinised. Everywhere they went together she could feel the cruel, judgemental eyes boring into her. Occasionally, as they passed between crash barriers, she overheard kind or cruel comments ("she's prettier in the flesh", "she looks like a stuck-up old bag" etcetera).

At first she had not known what to do with any part of her body. Should she drape herself round him lovingly? Hold his arm? Kiss him, cuddle him, look at him, smile, frown, hold her head up, put it on one side? Would this appear fawning and servile? Might that suggest coldness and lack of affection? Every tiny gesture had, for a while, required a purgatorial period of agonising. It all seemed to go wrong. She would reach for him just as he moved away, leaving her with an embarrassing handful of trouser or jacket. Gradually they discovered a series of tiny cues which allowed them to know what the other was doing.

It had to be endured, and there was no use complaining. Someone's husband (or wife) had to be prime minister. But to have your normal life curtailed in this way often felt very harsh. Would she be able to work properly, surrounded by Special Branch guards, all her professional successes put down to her contacts, all her failures held against her husband? The children would be fair game, their school reports stolen by tabloid piranhas, their first girl- and boyfriends described in excruciating detail by hacks whose own marriages were wrecked and whose own kids were on drugs. Until the day her husband retired things would never again be normal.

Of course, there was be vicarious fun to be had. Already she had enjoyed the company of famous actors, novelists and a witty bishop. She loved their surprise when they discovered that the mere spouse was not so mere. There was also the feeling of being close to the big things that were happening. She was charmed by Bobby, attracted to (though wary of) Mr Brown, made to feel secure by the bigness of Big Al and the ministrations of Mrs Al, and best of friends with Queen Mum. It could be borne.

So she coped when (as the Press Association reported) a West Country artificial flower company presented her with a bunch of silk flowers bearing the message "hoping this arrangement matches the colour scheme at No 10".