Sarah Brown: We haven't seen the last of her

Those in the know are certain that her husband's 'disaster' would never have happened if she had been at his side. And whatever happens to him this week, there is nothing to stop her own career continuing to flourish.
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The Independent Online

Sarah Brown must have thought for a good few moments before she composed the final words to My Day 22 of her blog last week. "A quick stop by the Abbeyview Day Centre in Dunfermline," she typed, recalling an engagement that must have already seemed like it was from the distant past, "before jumping on the train to Manchester to meet up with Gordon and discuss his eventful day on the campaign trail."

Eventful – you could say that. The Prime Minister's election strategy had just imploded, thanks to a spectacular error of judgement that may well be a pivotal moment in one of the closest run campaigns of recent times. At the time of his fateful encounter with Gillian Duffy, Mr Brown had been surrounded by spin doctors: Sue Nye, his long-time gatekeeper; Justin Forsyth, his director of strategic communications; Iain Bundred, his young campaign spokesman. But one seasoned PR adviser was missing: Sarah Brown. Had she not been, a stressed Mr Brown may not have tetchily denounced poor Mrs Duffy as a "bigot". Certainly, this seasoned communications professional would never herself have blurted out such an insult.

Like the best PRs she has been careful not to make herself the subject of unwanted headlines. The right-wing press that targeted the previous Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, have not made much political capital out of Sarah Brown. With typical tact and due consideration to Labour's media interests, she concluded My Day 22 of her blog with the bald statement: "The Mirror are carrying all I have to say on this in their paper tomorrow."

The next morning Sarah was splashed across the front page by the party's journal of choice, though there were few words she could offer. "People may say many things about Gordon, but they cannot say he doesn't care. He phoned me as soon as it happened and was absolutely mortified. He went to see her because he hated the fact he had hurt someone. His apology was from the heart."

There was a time when Sarah Brown, 46, was seen by Labour as a powerful part of its armoury. "She's a secret weapon," said her friend Kathy Lette, the Australian novelist. "The Labour Party should unleash her." In the event, rather than be wheeled forward like a great 68-pounder carronade, Mrs Brown found herself assigned the role of medical orderly, applying dressings and ligatures to her husband's wounds.

By My Day 23 she was at his side once more. "Nice to wake up in Manchester (one of my all-time favourite cities)," she announced with characteristic warmth. Ahead of their next campaign appointment, the Browns found time for relaxation, she revealed, describing the kind of model middle-aged couple depicted on television adverts for life insurance. "We made such good time that we were able to stop off for a walk in the park and get some fresh air. We met a few local dog walkers..."

If only there had been a breath of fresh air in Rochdale, there may not have been such an out-of-sorts Prime Minister, convincing himself that his on-camera exchange with Mrs Duffy had been nothing short of a disaster. If only there had been the reassuring presence of a Mrs Brown in Rochdale, just as there was the following day at a factory in Halesowen. There she stood loyally at her husband's shoulder in, the Daily Mail revealed, a "vibrant purple cowl-neck dress from Fenn Wright Manson". The Prime Minister's wife has largely held her own in the contrived contest with her younger Tory rival Samantha Cameron.

The sexist coverage of the wives of the party leaders can't sit easily with a progressive and intelligent woman like Mrs Brown, who was still Sarah Macaulay, a psychology graduate from Bristol University, when she founded the "ethical PR" firm Hobsbawm Macaulay with her old London school friend Julia Hobsbawm, daughter of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Nonetheless, her most obvious value to Labour is as a visual symbol that the Prime Minister has a life beyond politics. As Mike Granatt, a Whitehall communications veteran, told PR Week, Mrs Brown is the party's "only weapon" in demonstrating her husband's connection to ordinary households. "The voters know he's a great clunking manager, but they want a PM who understands what real people will face in the economic famine to come." Yet her ability to shape his reputation during this campaign has been limited by the defining influence of televised debates that have left the leaders to fend for themselves.

The internet is where Sarah Brown – who like her husband has never felt at ease in front of the TV cameras – has been most active. She is a big hit on the micro-blogging site Twitter, although she may soon have to reconsider her user identity, SarahBrown10. Against a screensaver background of a field of daffodils, she tweets frequent messages to the party faithful, without falling foul of the kind of gaffe that beset her husband.

Mrs Brown has more than a million followers on Twitter, and seems to encounter little of the hostility that exists in most political circles online. David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun who became friends with Mrs Brown when she worked with him at the Brunswick financial PR company (following an acrimonious split with Hobsbawm), said she had used the internet to circumvent opponents in the traditional media. "She's out-Twittered her enemies and connected with people in a way that shows the real Sarah," he said last summer. "If Gordon could find a way to do that we might be in a different ball game."

The Prime Minister's wife does her best to do that for him, a fabric softener for his starchy image. On My Day 21 she was noting that "as always Gordon was happiest when surrounded by kids"; asking readers "What's the best possible way to wind down after a busy day" on the stump and answering herself with the words: "A small glass of wine, an episode of Glee, and a catch up on the phone with Gordon. Perfect."

She may not have connected with enough people to sway the polls, but she is the consummate networker. She is friends with the author J K Rowling, the supermodel Naomi Campbell and the socialite Paris Hilton. She attended the wedding of the chief executive of News International Rebekah Wade and met the Pope in Italy (which she recorded with a "Meeting His Holiness" Twitpic and an accompanying blog: "Sarah Brown at the G8", describing how she hung out with Michelle Obama and the partners of other world leaders).

Of course, such invites tend to be addressed to Downing Street, and being the wife of the Prime Minister must surely broaden one's social life. But such considerations take no account of the considerable interpersonal and organisational skills of this mother of two young boys. The loss of her baby daughter Jennifer in 2002 only strengthened her resolve and led her to found the charity Piggy Bank Kids to help disadvantaged children, and the Jennifer Brown Research Fund to tackle complications in pregnancy. She is a patron of the domestic violence charity Women's Aid, the Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre and the educational charity Shine.

When she twice edited the News of the World's magazine Fabulous it was to raise awareness of the health charity Wellbeing of Women. Her fashion work with Naomi Campbell is linked to the White Ribbon Alliance, a coalition of organisations fighting maternal mortality in the developing world. This sector will offer even greater opportunities for her in a life after politics.

Sarah Brown might not be in Downing Street much longer, but her reputation is unsullied by the difficulties experienced by her husband. She may have to log on to Twitter on Friday in between packing for the removal van but, as she emerges from Gordon's shadow, the audience for this champion of women's causes may grow bigger than ever.

A Life in brief

Born: Sarah Macaulay, 31 October 1963, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

Family: Father worked in publishing and mother was a teacher; she has two younger brothers. In 2000 she married Gordon Brown. Their first daughter Jennifer Jane died when she was 10 days old. They have two sons, John and James.

Education: Attended Acland Burghley School and Camden School for Girls in London before going on to take a psychology degree at the University of Bristol.

Career: Joined brand consultancy firm Wolff Olins after university. In 1993 launched the public relations firm Hobsbawm Macaulay with Julia Hobsbawm. Now focuses on charity work and is patron of the White Ribbon Alliance and Women's Aid. Founded Piggy Bank Kids, which helps disadvantaged children.