Behind every powerful woman...

...there's a husband who wants no part in winning over the electorate. Ed Caesar asks why partners of female MPs are so media-shy - and rates their political value
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Indy Politics

It's election year, and the MP's wife is everywhere. You can't watch a television news item featuring one of the party leaders without also spotting his smiling consort. Whether it's Cherie visiting a hospital, Sandra visiting the homeless or Sarah and her imminent baby, the hours of airtime and acres of newsprint devoted to these unelected companions is vast - and calculated. "The inescapable truth is that it is Sandra Howard who never seems to put a foot wrong," gushed The Mail on Sunday recently. The media, it seems, cannot get enough of politicians' wives and, in response, the politicians wheel out their spouses at every available opportunity.

It's election year, and the MP's wife is everywhere. You can't watch a television news item featuring one of the party leaders without also spotting his smiling consort. Whether it's Cherie visiting a hospital, Sandra visiting the homeless or Sarah and her imminent baby, the hours of airtime and acres of newsprint devoted to these unelected companions is vast - and calculated. "The inescapable truth is that it is Sandra Howard who never seems to put a foot wrong," gushed The Mail on Sunday recently. The media, it seems, cannot get enough of politicians' wives and, in response, the politicians wheel out their spouses at every available opportunity.

Yet where are the politicians' husbands in this domestic idyll? There are 116 female MPs at Westminster, of whom 94 represent Labour. But we don't see Ruth Kelly, Oona King or Margaret Beckett parading their husbands for all to see, and neither do we see the media clamouring to be allowed access to them.

In fact, when The Independent tried to contact politicians' husbands, from every kind of background, we found that the situation is quite the reverse. Female MPs, especially Labour ones, guard their husbands and their privacy fiercely. Requests for interviews were greeted with cursory replies: "Tiberio doesn't do this kind of thing," we were told, and: "Leo hasn't done an interview in 30 years." For the most part, husbands exist for the public solely as a one-sentence coda on an MP's official website, and often not even as that. Perhaps the legacy of Denis Thatcher, who stayed aloof from the political press, still looms large over Westminster.

"It is bizarre, isn't it," says Amanda Platell, whose work at the Conservatives' press office involved making sure that Ffion Hague was as much in the public eye as possible. "These husbands don't even have a profile. I suppose a woman politician with a man in tow just makes the male look emasculated. It makes the woman look too powerful for our tastes. Men are not seen as the political assets that women are."

Can it be true that the sight of a supportive man alongside his wife sends the general public scrambling for the remote control? It seems hard to believe, especially when most are an asset any woman would be proud of. They are, in general, personable and entertaining, and enormously successful in their own fields. Platell has her own theory about the reluctance of the "Blair babes" to show themselves with their husbands: "If you look at the female politicians in the Labour Party, boy are they scary. Their husbands are probably all browbeaten, henpecked men who wouldn't dare do anything without express permission."

Whatever the reasons for the shadowy lives of our politicians' husbands, the party press machines are missing a huge opportunity. Such relationships are the key to understanding modern, professional Britain. Far from being the exception, two parents each with their own hectic work schedule is increasingly normal. It is what John Harvey, the husband of the Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, calls "the absolute nightmare of juggling everything" - and politicians could do worse than appealing to Britain's frenetically successful professional class.

But if we ever do see a new wave of high-profile male spouses emerging from the shadows of the Westminster circus, we will see the women MPs of tomorrow choosing their men with a great deal of care. And so we need to know - what kind of person makes a great husband for a politician?

Mark Spelman

Married to: Caroline Spelman, Shadow Secretary of State for Local and Devolved Government Affairs, in 1987.

Profession: Business strategist.

How they met: Mark knew what he was getting himself into when he asked Caroline to marry him - "she made it clear she had political ambitions. We looked at ourselves as a dual-career marriage from the outset."

How the marriage works: Between Caroline's all-hours politicking and Mark's international business commitments, this pair somehow manage to find time to spend with their three young children.

Caroline says: "My husband always expected me to work, we treat each other as equals; I don't feel a huge need to become a feminist."

Mark says: "Caroline's doing the right thing - she's great at her job."

Political benefit: 9/10 - Mark's domestic and professional support are crucial to Caroline's political ambitions. He often canvasses on his own so that his wife can concentrate on other areas of the constituency. A rare gem.

Leo Beckett

Married to: Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in 1979.

Profession: Parliamentary assistant to Margaret.

How they met: In 1979, Leo managed Margaret's election campaign, and, smitten with his new charge, left his wife Beryl to be with her.

How the marriage works: At 77, Leo is still assisting Margaret day-to-day at Westminster.

Margaret says: "If you go canvassing with Leo, it's like being with the Pied Piper."

Leo says: "I always treat the person I work for and who pays me money as the boss."

Political benefit: 9/10 - Although he's behind the scenes, Leo has masterminded his wife's stellar progress through Westminster. He is called her "left-wing conscience" by colleagues, and keeps her in touch with her political roots.

Derek Gadd

Married to: Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, in 1996.

Profession: Officer at the Association of Local Government.

How they met: At an anti-racism rally, when Derek was a councillor. But it could all have been so different. Ruth was once the girlfriend of fellow New Labour hotshot David Miliband.

How the marriage works: When Ruth was elected in 1997, very shortly before giving birth to her first of four children, Derek quit his job as an architect and became involved with local government. Derek and a nanny look after the children and perform the lion's share of the household chores.

Ruth says: "I am lucky because my husband works nine-to-five and it takes a lot of pressure off me."

Derek says: Nothing (he never gives interviews) and won't be photographed either.

Political benefit: 7/10 - Any husband who gives up his career for his wife, and remains stoically silent about it, is worth his weight in gold.

Jack Dromey

Married to: Harriet Harman, Solicitor General and MP for Camberwell and Peckham, in 1977.

Profession: Deputy general secretary of the TGWU.

How they met: At the Brent Law Centre, which Jack established, while they were campaigning for Asian women workers' rights.

How the marriage works: Two political juggernauts driving at full speed alongside each other. Jack, or Mr Harman ne Dromey, as he sometimes calls himself, wanted to join Harriet in Parliament in 2001, but no safe seat could be found for him. Coupled with his disappointment on missing out on the TGWU top job, despite being Tony Blair's preferred selection, his political career has had its set-backs, but then again, so has Harriet's. She was dismissed from the Cabinet in 1998, before rejoining as Solicitor General in 2001. But before Ruth Kelly came along and spoilt the party, Harriet was the original political Supermum - the first MP to bear three children while in office. And even though Jack has his own stellar union career to worry about, he is often first home to look after the children in a domestic life which both Jack and Harriet describe as "sickeningly normal".

Harriet says: "What we had were shared interests, a shared view. Neither of us were frivolous people. We'd always been 'in the struggle'."

Jack says: "When the history of maternal or political courage is written there will be a chapter headed Harriet Harman." But also, "I see what women have had to put up with for hundreds of years, being defined through the person to whom they're married."

Political benefit: 10/10 - When your husband is a union high-flyer with serious Labour credentials and friends in high places, you're on to a winner.

Dr Keith Tonge

Married to: Dr Jenny Tonge, MP for Richmond Park, in 1964.

Profession: Consultant radiologist at St Thomas' Hospital in London.

How they met: Jenny and Keith's eyes first met when they were dissecting a corpse at medical school. They qualified together and married the same year.

How the marriage works: Keith stays out of Jenny's limelight, although he does chip in leading up to an election. While Jenny comes from a family of Liberals, Keith's Conservative mother and Labour father used to argue the political toss. It is not a memory that has galvanised Keith into political activism, but his current situation has its perks: his office looks out on to the Houses of Parliament, so he often has supper with his wife between evening votes.

Jenny says: "Keith is the best mate any MP could ever have."

Keith says: "There are no rules for spouses. You don't say things that might upset her career."

Political benefit: 1/10 - And that's just the way that Jenny likes it.

Tiberio Santomarco

Married to: Oona King, MP for Bethnal Green & Bow and PPS to Patricia Hewitt, in 1994.

Profession: Film producer.

How they met: Tiberio, 41, met Oona when they were both working for the European Parliament in Brussels.

How the marriage works: Brussels left Tiberio utterly disillusioned with politics, which has proved difficult to reconcile with his marriage to one of New Labour's bright young things. Coupled with Oona's late nights at Westminster, it was a situation that caused problems in their relationship. Now Oona has cut her hours down, but her husband remains as aloof from the political circus as ever.

Oona says: "[After Brussels] he withdrew from politics and there was a fatwa in my house that I could not watch the news, for example."

Tiberio says: "You're married to the constituency."

Political benefit: 2/10 - Tiberio is sitting on a PR goldmine: he boasts film-star good looks, speaks five languages, has a black belt in karate and is an excellent chef, but Oona has failed to harness his strength to her favour. Disappointing.

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