Lady Elspeth Campbell: The Empress Ming

Daughter of a major-general, society hostess, chain-smoker. The Lib Dems' first lady is a one-off
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The Independent Online

She is known as "Little E" by her husband and is considered to be one of Edinburgh's most charming society hostesses. But those who had expected Lady Elspeth Campbell to assume the posture of a mute political wife have been swiftly disabused of any such preconception. Within minutes of her husband, Sir Menzies, being elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lady Campbell was asked on live television if, like many leader's wives, she would find his elevation, trying. "Why?," she wondered. "Just think of the fun."

It was a characteristically feisty response from the new first Lady of the Liberal Democrats. So feisty in fact that the party has subsequently tried to ban her from doing further interviews. It's unlikely, however, that anyone will be able to stop her. Like her father, a decorated Second World War hero, Elspeth Campbell has proved she is not afraid to march towards the sound of enemy gunfire, and is capable of coming out with their regimental colours tucked under her arm. Indeed, many credit her for her husband's rise through the party. "If it had been left to Elspeth, Ming would have been leader years ago," says one acquaintance. "She's tough."

Elspeth inherited her pluck from her father, Major-Gen Roy Urquhart, whose heroic exploits with the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem were portrayed by Sean Connery in the film A Bridge Too Far. The film, on which her father acted as a consultant, was correct in almost every respect except that Sean Connery had a Scottish accent. Her father spoke in the clipped English tone of many Scottish officers of his time, one which she has inherited.

Elspeth was born in India in 1940 as the Second World War raged, and as a young child she embarked on a perilous two-month journey with her mother from India to Britain, during which ships in their convoy were torpedoed.

After the war, she and her sisters, Suki and Judy, followed their father around the world, attending military schools in postings in Malaya, where Ghurkas guarded the family home, and Austria, where they lived near Lake Woerthersee. The young Elspeth Urquhart was accustomed to maids, chauffeurs, yachts, and even her father's private train. She was sent to Britain to attend a girls' convent school in Devon near an aunt she lived with.

Fiercely bright, and with an interest in literature, she could have gone to Oxbridge, but her father is said to have been horrified at the prospect of a "blue stocking" daughter and she went instead to a finishing school, the House of Citizenship.

Elspeth is clearly not the stereotypical Liberal Democrat wife. Her Art Nouveau-inspired coat, designed by Daks, was so eye-catching it threatened to upstage her husband's acceptance speech as Liberal Democrat leader. "She always looks immaculately turned out," says one veteran Lib Dem. "Her make-up is always perfect."

With her perfectly coiffured hair and designer wardrobe, Elspeth would look more at home in the Savoy than a Liberal Democrat teashop in Torbay. Instead she has redeployed her considerable social skills into the less glamorous task of helping her husband's political career. In Fife North East, Sir Menzies' seat, she is a familiar figure, whether it is delivering thousands of "Ming" Campbell leaflets or persuading Liberal Democrat supporters to spend an extra hour canvassing for votes.

At the election, even though her husband had a comfortable majority, she did not take votes for granted and was spotted on a windy St Andrews' quayside with an eccentric Lib Dem activist dressed entirely in yellow. A nicotine addict who has resisted all calls to quit, she has been observed stubbing out a hastily smoked cigarette with a well-shod foot before heading into St Andrews' student union.

Elspeth displayed her stoicism when Sir Menzies was diagnosed four years ago with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer which attacked his hip and led to months of debilitating chemo- therapy and radiotherapy. He has been given the all-clear and has credited Elspeth's unerring support for helping him defy predictions and recover far more quickly than anticipated.

Elspeth Campbell's unwavering belief in her husband's abilities has been a recurring theme in his political career. When people advised him to give up the battle to seize Fife North East, she encouraged him to keep on fighting. When he won the seat in 1987, she became his secretary working full-time in the Edinburgh office. "Elspeth has always believed in Ming's ability to become an MP and lead the party, even when he doubted it," explains one friend.

They met 35 years ago, when Elspeth was a young divorcee, separated from her husband, the Canadian-born baronet, Sir Philip Grant-Suttie, who is said to have an eye for the ladies. When they were married, her father is said to have remarked: "I hope you are doing the right thing, old girl."

She lived on his sprawling Scottish estate near North Berwick, which Sir Philip had inherited from a cousin. They had one son, James, but the marriage ended in 1969 after seven years, with her reportedly claiming mental cruelty.

It was as a result of the divorce proceedings that she met her next husband in 1970. During the divorce hearing, the future Tory MP, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, fixed up his client on a date with an up-and-coming advocate, Menzies Campbell, then making his name at the bar after a career as a sprinter. They were married three months later.

Elspeth introduced him to an aristocratic world very different from Sir Menzies' Glasgow upbringing, where his father was manager of Glasgow Corporation's building department. He introduced his bride to Liberal politics. Brought up in a Tory family, her first job was in Conservative Central Office where her salary was £8.50 week.

When she met Sir Menzies, a committed Liberal, friends say she was "more than happy to give up all the Tory stuff", and bought into her husband's beliefs. At the party's annual confer-ences, she portrays a keen interest in politics, using her social skills to win over the most hardened Tory-supporting commentators. Her husband has been known to boast about how his wife, while his secretary, took a first-class degree in English and that she is the brains in the family.

Indeed, Lady Campbell surprised many in Edinburgh society by attending the Open University and turning down invitations for evening drinks so that she could rush home to write essays. As part of the course, she spent a year studying popular culture during which she wrote an essay on Coronation Street. Coronation Street "is all about strong women and weak men", Sir Menzies once remarked. "Elspeth is a strong woman."