Betsy Duncan Smith: A strangely feminist type of Tory wife

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The Independent Online

On paper at least, Betsy Duncan Smith appears to be the perfect Conservative wife. She's blonde and beautiful, dresses with quiet panache and ubiquitous pearls, and believes in traditional Tory values like staying home with the children. She's from an aristocratic background, loves the country life, and is not ambitious for herself, except as a wife, mother and helpmeet.

Unhindered by intellectual credentials, she left school after her A-levels and worked at Harrods for a couple of years before training as a secretary. She is, at first sight, just what the Tory spin doctor ordered.

Except that, when you come to think of it, who has ever managed very much more than "first sight" of Betsy Duncan Smith? Not the party faithful. Although her husband had been MP for Chingford since 1992, with Betsy playing her fateful part as his diary secretary from the beginning, she had never, for example, attended a party conference until her husband became leader in 2001.

Even then, she did not manage to get down to Blackpool in time for Mr Duncan Smith's first speech on the conference platform as leader. This might not sound like such a big deal, but it's still a break with tradition. Until Betsy came along, no Tory spouse had deviated from the example set by Clementine Churchill, who mounted the platform by her husband's side, a model of loyalty.

Mrs Duncan Smith did show up later, although she did not have a speaking role at the conference. At that time, presumably, Tory party operators still had high hopes for Betsy, and were employing a strategy whereby they broke her in to service gently. She was assigned a personal adviser, Shana Hole, who had previously been in charge of projecting the image of Ffion Hague, and had also worked as a PR for Margaret Thatcher.

Certainly, thoughts were already being formulated about how Mrs Duncan Smith's natural assets could be exploited. Ms Hole once explained that her duties ran to such matters. Talking about her work with Ffion Hague, she said: "Wardrobe is an issue for women because it is a lot easier for men just to carry a few suits. People take pictures of William Hague as leader of the party but pictures of Ffion as Ffion."

But even on this matter, Mrs Duncan Smith, was a different kind of leader's wife. She arranged a private consultation with the vendeuse at Hardy Amies and, with the help of a relative, stuck a deal whereby she could borrow their suits and eveningwear for public engagements. No party hack was going to get her hands on Betsy's wardrobe.

Mrs Duncan Smith, by all accounts, looked lovely at the Tory conference gala dinner in the sort of classic pink suit that the Queen's favourite couturier was famous for creating. Mrs Duncan Smith's clothing arrangements were duly declared in the register of MPs' interests, and no doubt those keen to exploit Mrs Duncan Smith's photogenic appeal assumed they were on to a good thing.

The idea, presumably, was that with careful handling, Betsy would have warmed to the idea of being a modern, media-savvy wife, and been willing to do a little more by way of appearing at her husband's side as charming upmarket arm candy.

But she has not. Among the many resentments seething around Iain Duncan Smith and his wife, is enormous huffiness about how Betsy won't play ball, and offer herself up as a picturesque asset.

Betsy, far from being on hand to support her husband, moved the family home away from London not long after he became leader, and persuaded him that he should come to work late on a Monday morning so he could spend time with his family.

She is known to be visibly irritated when private time is interrupted by politics, advises her husband against taking advice to be glitzier ("It's just not Iain," she says), and is considered by some to be nothing but a disappointing encumbrance when she so easily could be a vote-winner.

Indeed, it may be this kind of bad feeling that has contributed to Betsy Duncan Smith's predicament. The motives of the sources who have told the investigative journalist Michael Crick that Mrs Duncan Smith did not deserve the salary she was paid for being her husband's diary secretary in the first 15 months of his leadership are open to speculation. But it is an absolute certainty that if she had been viewed as an electoral asset to her husband, pressing flesh, flashing smiles and generally slaving in the thankless, unpaid, manner that Tories have long expected from their wives, they would have been considerably more tardy when it came to telling tales on her out of school.

Friends of Mrs Duncan Smith now say that she believes she is being patronised by those who only respect women who go out to work. "She's come up against a lack of comprehension and condescension from high-powered career women who don't understand what she does," says one anonymous chum.

Another, Sarah Johnson, who has known Betsy since their children attended the same school, offers a similar theory. "The Betsy I know can break off from cooking supper to field the constant stream of phone calls, load the fax machine in the well-equipped office at their Buckinghamshire home, check the e-mails and still avoid burning the food."

Ms Johnson's argument is that people are unwilling to understand the way in which women who work from home operate, doing a bit here and a bit there, while the children are busy, at school or asleep (or at boarding school like three of Iain and Betsy's four), instead of turning up at an office. "In Crick's world, if you take a phone message in an office, wearing a suit and sitting at a desk with a skinny latte that took you half an hour to collect from Starbuck's, that's work: if you take the same message while standing up and cooking pasta for 10, that's not."

And as far as the matter in hand, the petty one of counting up all of the uxorial secretarial duties and seeing if they come to 25 hours a week, is concerned, Ms Johnson probably has a point. Further, while many people will insist that rich people are the most cheese-paring of all, it seems unbelievable that the Duncan Smiths would have risked so much for around £15,000 over 15 months. He, after all, was placed at number 72 in a recent list of the richest MPs, with a fortune estimated at £1.7m. She was recently given a mansion with swimming pool, tennis court and orchards on her father's Swanbourne estate (he owns the village of Swanbourne too).

It seems to me that the reason for Mrs Duncan Smith's troubles, far from being that she is too much the old-fashioned wife and mother, is that she actually has an admirably militant streak, and has stuck rigidly to the principle - a feminist one - that if she's helping her husband with his work, then she ought to be paid for it. For while Mrs Duncan Smith might look like a plausible politician's wife, she appears instinctively to behave more like an army wife, and army wives don't do what politician's wives do.

They don't trot off with their husbands when they go to work, for obvious reasons. They keep the home fires burning, look after the children and turn up for the occasional function. Army wives don't become embroiled in their husband's professional schedules in the way that politician's wives do, and if they are working for the army, they expect to be paid for it.

This, after all, is what Betsy signed up for more than 20 years ago when she met her husband, then in the Scots Guards, at a party. Betsy moved in army circles, because her father, Lord Cottesloe, was a former Royal Navy Commander and a former Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. This was the life she knew and the life she married into.

She was supportive of her husband when he left the forces, and stood by him in the early days when he had difficulty in finding work. Later, when he was made redundant, she chivvied him along, advising him to treat seeking work as a job in itself. When he decided to go into politics, it was Betsy's family money and contacts which helped him to do so. And while Mr Duncan Smith would not have stood for the leadership without his wife's continued support, it is well known that there was some reluctance on her part.

When called upon to help, she does. Once, during an earlier leadership crisis around a year ago, journalists remember Betsy doing a good "ambassadorial" job for her husband at a seminar on restorative justice in Oxford, showing a real interest in the work of the assembled police officers, social workers and offenders while her husband was, as so often, distracted by the demands of the media to comment on rumours of plots and coups.

Mrs Duncan Smith is known to believe that politics has a corrosive effect on family life, in a way that service life does not. As it happens, she is in a good position to know. Her ancestors were MPs, ministers and hereditary peers as well. But they have, foremost, been armed service people.

The first Lord Cottesloe, Admiral Sir Thomas Fremantle, served at Trafalgar and Copenhagen. (He was, in an ironic historical footnote, married to Betsy's namesake, whose claim to fame is that she was not a diary secretary, but a notable diarist.) Her grandfather, the fourth Lord Cottesloe, was a Territorial Colonel, much involved in the anti-aircraft defence of London during the war, and is, as it happens, the man after whom the National Theatre's Cottesloe stage was named. Her father was a commander in the Royal Navy. Betsy is more used to the public service template offered by the forces than she is by that offered to Tory wives.

Mrs Duncan Smith's great crime has been that she has not fulfilled her role in the way those at central office would have liked her to - and not just her job as diary secretary. Once they hoped to use her to get her husband into power. Now they've found they may be able to use her to get him out of power instead. Which only goes to prove, does it not, that all Betsy Duncan Smith's instincts about political office, if not political office staffing, were right.

Life story


15 February 1959. Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle (Betsy), elder daughter of John Tapling Fremantle, 5th Baron Cottesloe and Elizabeth Ann (nee Barker). Brother Thomas Fremantle (b1966) and a sister, Frances Ann (Fanny) (b1961). Cottesloe family motto: "Neither by Entreaty nor Bribery". Betsy's great uncle was William Harris, 6th Earl of Malmesbury.


Married George Iain Duncan Smith, former Army officer, 1982. Four children; Edward St Alban (b 1987); Alicia Cecilia (b1989); Henry St John (b 1990); Rosanna Tatiana (b1993).

Notable forbears

Sir Thomas Francis Fremantle, (b1765), vice admiral, fought at Trafalgar, married Betsy Wynne, a diarist. The 2nd Earl of Malmesbury introduced the labrador retriever to Britain. The 3rd Earl of Malmesbury was briefly foreign secretary.


St Mary's School, Wantage; Stowe School.


Left school at 17 to work at Harrods before becoming a secretary.

They say

"I always feel sympathy with every woman who is trying to juggle a lot of tasks. I have sympathy for anybody that is hounded by the press." - Cherie Blair

"She's totally absorbed in her husband and the family. They are her whole life and I don't even think she has any hobbies." - Her mother, Lady Cottesloe