Arriving in Russia, it's the G8 WAGs

Forget the conspicuous consumption of the England footballers' other halves - these women's husbands have got real spending power at their fingertips. As the St Petersburg summit gets under way, we size up the career mums and cake-bakers behind the movers, shakers and deal-makers
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Laureen Teskey Harper

The mewing coming from inside 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of Stephen Harper in Ottawa, is not the sound of a political leader recovering from a mauling in parliament. It's your first encounter with the collection of stray cats taken in by the Canadian premier's wife, Laureen, who never saw a kitty she didn't want to protect.

At a recent summer barbecue for parliamentary reporters at Sussex Drive, Mrs Harper tried to foist her collection for adoption. At least one guest obliged. Any cat wandering the streets of St Petersburg this weekend should beware - the gentle hands of Mrs Harper may scoop it up. If she doesn't bring it home to Canada she may attempt to palm it off on one of the other G8 wives.

Born in 1963 on a rural ranch in Alberta, Ms Harper has always been an animal sort of person. When she wasn't riding her favourite horse, Jack, however, she was on the family tractor and, when she was older, bumping around on her motorbike. She was still seen occasionally astride a motorbike in Ottawa when she moved there in 2002, when her husband led the opposition.

A former student of journalism in Calgary, and a graphic designer, Ms Harper has no official duties as the Canadian Prime Minister's wife. However, she has already been widely credited with providing a softer, human face to the First Family, and in particular to her far more private and introverted husband.

By David Usborne

Laura Bush

As everyone knows, the graceful Laura Bush is a far more skilled diplomat than her rough-edged husband. Just look at this seamless handling of a take-no-prisoners question from a German reporter this week when they stopped en route for Russia.

Q: "So what do you have to say about Angela Merkel?"

A: "I like her very, very much, and this trip, for the President and me to have the opportunity to be in her home constituency, has given us a chance to get to know her in a more personal way. I admire her very much. I think it's terrific that Germany has a woman chancellor, and both my husband and I really like her."

Mrs Bush has long performed well on the public stage and it was no surprise that she was used during the 2004 presidential campaign to rally support for her husband. One can be sure that whatever her husband does or does not do in Russia, the first lady will bear in mind the advice of a fellow southern woman, the late Tammy Wynette, and will be standing firmly by her man.

Indeed, away from the public eye Mrs Bush is known as a firm and forceful woman who maintains an antipathy for the media, even greater than her husband's. She readily admits to offering the President advice on various issues and it was, famously, the former librarian who persuaded her husband to quit his heavy drinking, telling him: "It's me or the bottle."

Andrew Buncombe

Joachim Sauer

The Chancellor's partner is renowned for loathing publicity and has been branded hopeless at social functions, so it came as no surprise yesterday that Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel's reclusive husband, will not be joining his wife at the summit. The 56-year-old chemistry professor is highly regarded on the international university network, but since Ms Merkel was elected late last year, Professor Sauer has been conspicuous only through his absence from her side. Throughout the World Cup, Ms Merkel was left to cheer on the German side on her own, and on the day that she was elected Professor Sauer watched events on television at home. He did go with Ms Merkel to the Bayreuth music festival, but even there he was nicknamed the Phantom of the Opera by the media because of his inability to engage in small talk, although he astounded critics by joining Ms Merkel to welcome George Bush on his whistle-stop tour of eastern Germany. "Joachim Sauer believes that he and the Chancellor have entirely separate careers and that they should not interfere with each other in this respect," officials say.Tony Paterson

Ludmila Putina

Ludmila, 48, a former air stewardess, is rarely seen or heard in public and has long played the role of adoring but low-key wife. Her flawless discretion may be a hang-over from her time as a KGB wife trained to keep mum about her husband's sensitive work. "In the KGB, there was an understanding: Don't discuss business with your wife," she told her husband's biographers. "Excessive openness has been known to lead to tearful consequences. The less your wife knows, the more soundly you sleep at night."

As President Putin's spouse it will fall to her to entertain the other leaders' wives, and their "cultural programme" reflects her interests, namely child-rearing and education. On the few occasions that she has given interviews to the press the only subjects she has discussed are her daughters.

By Andrew Osborn

Flavia Prodi

Ten years ago at a dinner ending the G8 summit in the Bay of Naples, the then Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, asked his fellow heads of government which among them would go on to "father more children". His remark was denounced by the press as vulgar, but summiteers may well have fantasised at the idea of a night with the glamorous Veronica Berlusconi, an actress whom the media tycoon fell for while she was performing topless at a theatre. Flavia Prodi is unlikely to cause such curiosity. Modestly dressed and ever the dutiful wife, Italy's doughty current first lady is better known for her academic excellence than her amorous inclinations. A university teacher who married Mr Prodi, her childhood sweetheart, in 1969, she is expected to be the most faithful attender of wifely functions in St Petersburg. In 2005 she wrote a biography of their marriage entitled Insieme (Together) which disclosed little about their private life. Both are devout Catholics, and while Silvio prided himself on his conquests, "Il Professore" Prodi prides himself on cycling and running marathons. At the Okinawa G8 summit in 2000 when her husband was EU president, most wifely functions were cancelled after Mrs Prodi was the only wife to attend a visit to the Peace Park.

By John Phillips

Cherie Blair

Cherie Blair is arguably the most political of all the spouses who will take part in the formalities at the G8 summit. An active Labour Party member before Tony became involved, she has campaigned on civil rights and, perhaps more often than he would like, causes controversy with her outspoken views on anything from Middle Eastern politics to the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. This will be one of her last foreign visits, and as she carries out the controversy-free programme organised for the G8 spouses, her thoughts are likely to stray to the pro-democracy demonstrations beyond the security fence.

When she boards the Prime Minister's plane this morning, it's likely she'll be accompanied by her Mayfair stylist, Andre Suard, who was with her everywhere she went during last year's election campaign and landed the Labour Party with a bill for almost £8,000. This time, her hairdresser will travel at the taxpayers' expense. Mrs Blair likes to have her hair done every day on a public occasion like the G8; she will not want to have to wander the streets of St Petersburg looking for a hairdressing salon.

By Andy McSmith

Junichiro Koizumi

There will be no leading lady accompanying Mr Koizumi this weekend thanks to Japan's Elvis-loving premier swearing off marriage since an acrimonious divorce 24 years ago. "If the energy required to get married is one," he declared, "the energy required to get divorced is 10." Mr Koizumi has either never had a partner since his divorce or done very well to keep it out of the press. Some say that his true love was always going to be politics. At his arranged wedding to Kayoko Miyamoto in 1977, the ceremonial cake was in the shape of Japan's parliament building. He has three sons from his four-year marriage.

By Jerome Taylor

Bernadette Chirac

Bernadette Chirac is an enigma. She is notoriously cold, aloof and aristocratic. She has been married to Jacques for 50 years, but has never called him "tu" - the familiar version of "you" in French. She uses only "vous", except with children.

On the other hand, there is something very human and likeable about Bernadette. Her husband's bluff exterior disguises the hard interior of a political machine. Her facial expressions and body language convey exactly what she feels, which is usually displeasure or impatience.

Bernadette is 73, like her husband. For many years, she was regarded as too haughty and not chic or pretty enough to help the Chirac family business. In the 11 years since she became Prèmiere Dame, she has bustled into the foreground, winning over French hearts with charity work and her no-nonsense-granny image.

In a book of interviews four years ago, she made it clear that she knew that Jacques had been serially unfaithful. She never considered divorce, she said, because the Chodron de Courcel family - her family - did not do that kind of thing.

Bernadette Chirac will be by far the oldest of the leaders' wives in St Petersburg. She has plenty of experience of visiting handicraft exhibitions and listening to children's choirs. But don't count on her to smile.

By John Lichfield

The Programme

Despite decades of Communist rhetoric extolling equality between Russian men and women, the reality was always rather different. It comes as no surprise, then, that when G8 leaders are trying to put the world to rights, their wives will be deeply engrossed in ... Russian handicrafts and drinking tea. Chaperoned by Ludmila Putina, the Russian President's publicity-shy wife, the first ladies will visit an exhibition of handicrafts, listen to a children's choir and wander the fountain-strewn landscaped gardens of the summit venue. Tonight they will be at a banquet at Peter the Great's summer palace.

By Andrew Osborn