New Norma, new dangerwoman - the darling of the Tory press

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The Independent Online
Norma Major is still much concerned with the freezing of cheese. "If you have any grotty bits left," she said yesterday, "you grate them and put them in a box in the freezer. Then you can always have grated cheese ready to put on things. I keep mine in an old ice-cream container."

For the first time, however, Mrs Major is starting to apply her domestic decisiveness to other matters. Yesterday in the Daily Mail, in her most substantial interview in six years as wife of the Prime Minister, she revealed that Margaret Thatcher was "too mean" to heat the Chequers swimming- pool, described the novels of Jeffrey Archer as "trashy", and declared that Bill Clinton's use of his daughter, Chelsea, to help win re-election was "obscene".

Within hours of publication, the Downing Street press office complained that the latter two statements "were not accurate", adding that Mrs Major owned a full set of Archer works.

But perhaps the most surprising remark in the interview went unchallenged. About half-way through, after a little gentle discussion of political wives, the conversation turned to Hillary Clinton, whom the Mail last week dubbed "the leading political hate figure among Americans". Mrs Major, in her milder way, agreed: "She's really put her head above the parapet, hasn't she?"

Throughout last week, Mrs Major gave a good impression of doing much the same thing. It began on Tuesday morning, with the news that she would be accompanying her husband on a two-week campaigning tour around Britain. She would even have her own party aide for PR.

"She is unassuming, housewifely and evidently sweet-natured," said the Daily Telegraph in an editorial headed "The Discreet Charm of Mrs Major". Her front-page photograph, all bouffant and shark-smile, begged to differ.

On Tuesday night, she appeared at her husband's side in Scotland as he made a speech attacking Labour's plans for devolution. A flappy lapel aside, her suit was one of Cherie Blair's. The next day, the Times was overcome: "Major's wife strides into new role as campaign trouper," it announced. "With her sympathetic smile, belief in family values and apparent common sense ... she will be a huge electoral asset."

On Thursday, the Conservative papers wheeled out their military metaphors, as they are wont to do when excited. "Stormin' Norma," said the Sun; "Tories' secret weapon scores a direct hit", said the Times. All Mrs Major had done was talk to members of the Midlands public about her suntan - "my back garden in Huntingdon".

The frenzy peaked on Friday. "She is the Stealth Bomber of the Tory election war," wrote the Daily Express. Visiting Buxton, she had shown "magical properties". Mrs Major still looked much the same in the half-page photograph.

Yesterday, the Mail aside, the newspapers were beginning to stretch. The Sun kept its front page free to tell readers about Mrs Major learning to swim: "Her buoyant triumph is all down to a set of water wings ... She gradually let the air out over several weeks until she could swim without them."

At this point, a suspicion began to form about Mrs Major's relaunch. All week, Rupert Murdoch's newspapers had been particularly keen on it. Later this month, Mrs Major will publish her second book, a history of Chequers.

Her first, a biography of Joan Sutherland, was rather favourably reviewed in the Sunday Times, a Murdoch newspaper. The history of Chequers is to be put out by HarperCollins, whose owner is ... Rupert Murdoch. Could the whole Conservative PR enterprise have been directed for a greater good than John Major's re-election? Surely not.

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