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Split and tell: Why every politician fears the ex-factor

Forget sex scandals: it's the subtle revenge of a bitter ex-spouse that can really mess up a political career

Political wives are not as docile as they used to be. In the old days, no sooner had a male politician been caught with his trousers down than there came the routine announcement that his wife was standing by him – usually made on her behalf as she stayed meekly in the background. But now it has become commonplace for the politician to leave his wife to be with the other woman – and the wives are fighting back. Chris Huhne is the latest politician to find out how dangerous an angry ex-wife can be.

Vicky Pryce, whom he abandoned for another woman after 27 years of marriage, has begun her revenge with an allegation that Mr Huhne illegally persuaded an aide to accept his penalty points for speeding, thus avoiding a driving ban. He denies it. She also intends to bring out a book. Yesterday the social media was alive with speculation that Huhne would not dare show his face in the Commons to open the debate on his Energy Bill – false, as it turned out – and that his resignation was imminent.

Other politicians have felt the hot fury of women they have betrayed, but in the past it was always the mistress or the prostitute they needed to fear. Norma Major, Gail Sheridan, Mary Archer, Jane Clark, Ann Parkinson, Valerie Profumo – the list of political wives who stood by their men is long and mostly silent.

This was just as well for the philandering husbands, because it is the wives who possess the killer details that can expose their worst foibles to an unforgiving public. Mark Sanford, seen as US presidential material after he was elected Governor of South Carolina in 2003, saw his political future wrecked as his ex-wife revealed that he had the emotional sensitivity of a dead rhinoceros.

In 2009, with the press on his trail, the governor gave a press conference in which he admitted that he had secretly sneaked off to Argentina, where he had a mistress. As the press conference ended, the question foremost in Sanford's mind was whether he had acquitted himself well enough to save his political career, so he rang the person who had always been his helpmate in times of crisis – his wife, Jenny – and asked: "How did I do?" Unfortunately for the governor, his wife and he were no longer on the same emotional wavelength. She berated him for having more to say about his mistress than about his wife or his children, cut the conversation short, kicked him out of the house, and wrote a book about the affair.

But Jenny Sanford was relatively kind in the choice of words that she used to describe her ex-husband by comparison with Cecilia Attias, first wife of France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, who astounded observers by walking out on her husband just five months after his election. She told her biographer, Anna Bitton: "Nicolas est un sauteur ! ... Un homme qui n'aime personne, même pas ses enfants (Nicolas is a shagger! ... A man who loves no one, not even his children)".

Fortunately for the President, the French take a more relaxed attitude to infidelity in high places than the British or Americans. Two years ago, Sylvie Brunel, estranged wife of France's hardline Immigration Minister Eric Besson published The Guerilla Handbook for Women, in which she denounced her ex-husband as a serial adulterer who abandoned her after 30 years of marriage for a 24 year old Tunisian – "a woman as young as our eldest daughter". According to France Soir, Besson acted as if he was enjoying the attention that the book brought, even recommending it to his publisher. It certainly did not end his political career.

The Italians are also relaxed about sexual peccadilloes, which they would have needed to be, or the extraordinary career of Silvio Berlusconi would have ended four years ago when his long-suffering wife, Veronica Lario, finally snapped. She sent a furious letter to an anti-Berlusconi newspaper, La Repubblica, complaining that her 70-year- old husband had flirted with at least three women at an awards ceremony the previous week, using chat up lines such as, "If I wasn't already married I would marry you right away". "These were declarations that I see as damaging to my dignity and... cannot be treated as just jokes. That is why to my husband and to the public man that he is I am asking for a public apology as I have not received one in private," she wrote.

On that occasion, the Italian Prime Minister made a public apology and the marriage appeared to have been patched up, but two years later she announced that she was leaving him, because of his fondness for teenage girls. She is reported to have said: "I cannot remain with a man who consorts with minors."

But remain with him is exactly what she had done, for 20 years, when it is unlikely that he was any better behaved at 50 than at 70. This illustrates the cruel dilemma faced by women who have lived for years with unfaithful husbands. Exacting an overdue revenge can be as demeaning for the wronged wife as it is to her erring ex-spouse.

Pavla Topolankova, wife of the Czech Prime Minister, attempted what looked like a refined revenge on her husband, who left her for another woman, by announcing that she was running for election as a candidate of a rival party, while still claiming that she wanted to save their marriage. That only brought her the double humiliation of being abandoned in private and barred in public from appearing at civic functions as the Prime Minister's wife.

Margaret Cook reacted at first with stoic dignity when her husband of 28 years, the Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, abruptly abandoned her in 1997 to marry his researcher. Two years later she brought out a book that accused her ex-husband of having had at least six mistresses, and a drink problem. The book was panned by the critics, and a month after it appeared, a remorseful Mrs Cook said in an interview that she had done a "dreadful thing" by writing it, and that she was going to meet her ex-husband to say sorry.

Revenge is said to be a dish best served cold – but sometimes it is best not served at all.