WDTT couples

We Do Things Together: Ffion Jenkins and William Hague MP have joined the ranks of partners who fell in love when she was the secretary and he was the boss. But are they a dying breed? By Jojo Moyes
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"I've got on with her very well for a long time and we've worked together, and I suppose not many husbands and wives have had the opportunity of actually working together ... she knows better than most what public life is like."

That was the Tory leadership contender William Hague, talking about his fiancee Ffion Jenkins last week. He met her in 1995, when he was promoted to John Major's cabinet and she became his private secretary, and they will marry early next year.

Mr Hague gives one of the most oft-cited reasons for men marrying their female workmates: in no other arena of life do people get to know each other so thoroughly. Instead of the polished date of their dreams, a colleague will witness a better set of indicators for real life: the grumpy mood of someone who has just stepped off a delayed 7.15am train, the furies of a broken photocopier, the panic at a missed deadline.

In the case of men marrying their secretaries, the advantages can be two-fold. Many secretaries are already "work-wives", anticipating their boss's needs and often adding to their office duties trips to the dry- cleaner or sandwich shop. In a job with excessively long hours, the secretary may be the person he sees most. For that reason, those relationships are often especially popular in political circles. In 1943 the former Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George, 81, wed Frances Stevenson, his secretary, who was 26 years his junior. Sarah Biffen married her husband John while working for him in the Commons. She met him while filling in for his secretary who had gone on holiday.

"He says I used to bring him pears. That's a motherly thing, isn't it, wanting to give people food, and wiping up things that are spilt?" Mrs Biffen, who apparently gets irritated if "trotted out" as a politician's PA who ended up marrying the boss, said in an interview.

As she herself admits, the relationship between secretary and boss often comprises an element of mothering. During a recent photo-opportunity Ffion Jenkins was observed helping to guide her future husband into a variety of suitable poses. She also taught Mr Hague the words of the Welsh national anthem when she was his private secretary at the Welsh Office, thus preventing him from making a fool of himself like his predecessor John Redwood, famously caught on camera nodding sheepishly to the tune.

The best known recent example of secretaries-turned-political-wives is, of course, Christine Hamilton, who married her husband Neil five days before his 1983 election to the then-safe seat of Tatton, after initially meeting him at a Young Conservatives Conference in Ripon. Secretaries understand the lifestyle they are buying into. In the Hamiltons' case, (motto, "WDTT - We Do Things Together") there was no honeymoon: they were back campaigning in his constituency the very next morning.

If the advantages for the boss are obvious, there are also a few for the woman, especially if she is not highly educated, or has limited opportunities herself. The man is likely to be wealthier, and also to carry a vestige of power, even if only in the arena of the office, and power is still one of the most powerful aphrodisiacs in the book. And there is the eroticism of shared endeavour.

"From a woman's point of view it's likely that she will build a relationship with a man where being able to help and support is part of her self-esteem. It seems as if she can really help this man," says Julia Cole of Relate.

Husbands and Wives, a survey of marriage conducted in the United States, found that many women put a man's income above both good sex and stimulating company when they consider a husband. That was true across the board, whether the woman was a college-educated professional or a manual worker. But there is frequently a less happy characteristic of such relationships: when secretaries marry their bosses, they often displace a wife in the process.

When the television presenter Michael Aspel replaced his wife Lizzie Power with his personal assistant, Irene, he commented: "She's my best friend. She's probably the one who knows me better than anyone else in the whole world. I don't know what any of us would do without her ... She's a real mother hen and she makes sure my suits are dry-cleaned. At the end of a night, you can sit back and have a good laugh. She's wonderful." Words to put a chill into the heart of any woman exhausted after a long day at home with children.

In fact, his wife Lizzie said afterwards that she was convinced that proximity played a great part in her husband's affair.

"I think it was an accident; it could have been anybody," she said. "My God, they've been working together for five years. There must have been quite a few times when things have been fractious at home and he left feeling disgruntled and not listened to. "Perhaps he's thought: 'Thank God I'm at work,' and there was this nice, tidy lady getting on with her job and being pleasant."

Julia Cole says: "A man may be coming home in the evening to someone who doesn't seem particularly supportive, who's saying 'I really needed you to be home for dinner; you're never here to bathe the children.' He may feel as if it's his right to say, 'well, I get more support from Freda my secretary than Mary my wife.' You can see the progression of how that happens."

But if part of a secretary's attraction is her wholehearted devotion to her boss's need, when she becomes his wife and wants a family of her own she may find herself getting an unsympathetic response.

"If you base the whole of your interest or affection in what is predominantly a work-based arena, and then it changes, you may have to struggle to get through the changes," Ms Cole warns.

Secretaries who have become wives are well aware of their husband's need for attention and understandably may feel nervous of leaving him in his new secretary's company for hours on end.

If that all sounds like a feminist's nightmare, it is worth noting that with the work-place changing as rapidly as it is, the phenomenon may be a dying breed. Secretaries have largely morphed into personal assistants and may have a different set of priorities than simply revolving around their boss. And, as Ms Cole notes, that boss may well be a woman.

"I wonder whether it's something that's going to fade as women work their way up in jobs and industry. We are seeing huge changes in the ways that couples talk about relationships. The idea that it's women who are likely to be in the subordinate post and men who are likely to be in control is on the way out"n