A vile calumny on our politicians' wives

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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NEEDLESS to say, I rarely find time to watch television; nor since the great days of Face the Music ("with Wallace Arnold guesting on dummy keyboard") have I bothered to appear on it. Whenever I turn it on, it is full of the most sordid sex and filthy language, the video rental shop permitting.

For a time in the early Seventies, I was an occasional guest with Anouska Hempel and that admirable songbird Vince Hill on the immortal Call My Bluff (now, alas, long-forgotten). To be perfectly honest, I still accept the odd invitation to present What the Papers Say, redressing the bias of my fellow presenter Mr Paul "Left" Foot by highlighting the cases of so-called "innocent" (dread word!) people - politically motivated trades unionists, footballers and the like - who continue to evade prosecution.

But my personal viewing is restricted to news and documentaries (Pebble Mill at One, Richard and Judy, the news at six, seven, nine and 10 plus Newsnight with the dread Paxman) and drama series (Emmerdale, Brookside, Neighbours, Home and Away, Baywatch). Apart from these, I simply never have the time to become a hostage to the Demon Gogglebox.

Nevertheless, I did happen to catch a recent series called The Politician's Wife. I doubt whether any Independent on Sunday readers would have seen it (at the time in question I would guess you were all crammed into the Hampstead Everyman Cinema for an all-night season of 1930s avant- garde in Romania - I jest!). For your benefit, I should explain that it purported to be about the dotty wife of a Conservative politician, who, finding her hard-working husband has been taking a well-earned break with a lady friend, sets about plotting his downfall. Frankly, I would never bother to mention such an unlikely piece of nonsense were it not that strangers continue to approach me in the street, saying, "Mr Arnold, you are a man in the know, a commentator we can trust: are the wives of our leading Conservative MPs really like that? Are they controlled by their husbands, ignored by the party and forced to maintain a cheery public face even in moments of the very greatest distress?" I take a meditative puff on my pipe. "To be honest," I reply, "I've never bothered to ask them - their husbands wouldn't thank me for it! - but they always look cheery enough to me."

I have, of course, known the wives of a great many Tory MPs o'er the years, and I have never heard a single one of them complain about the behaviour of their husbands, even when it has come to the divorce courts. These days, the Conservative Party is much more modern and "go-ahead" where wives are concerned, taking great pains to include the "little lady" in all its forward-planning, policy initiatives, recruitment drives and philosophical decisions, particularly in the crucial sphere of flower arrangements, coffee mornings and whist drives. To suggest that they are in any way "ignored" or "patronised" by Central Office is quite absurd - and even if they were, the Chairman of the party has far more important matters on his hands than running around mopping up the tears of charabancs of blubbing wifeys!

In the old days, the wives of Conservatives MPs would be visible just once a year at Party Conference, and then only behind a protective screen, which neatly divided them from the main body of the hall. Behind this screen, they could come and go as they liked, though it was always the ancient custom of the party that they should knock three times on their hotel door before entering, just in case their husband was "tidying things up" in the bedroom with his personal assistant. In the afternoons, they would be taken on shopping expeditions, visits to local beauty spots, and so forth, shepherded about by a series of lightly armed guards, all tied together in three-to-a-row crocodile lines for their own safety and comfort. Come tea-time, they would be given a short course of instruction in pluck and dignity by the Chairman's wife, and the evenings would be their own until their husbands came back from dinner for a much-needed sleep.

Who can honestly take their hands out of the till, place them on their hearts, if any, and say that things are better now? On the other hand, we as a progressive party should congratulate ourselves that so many Tory wives have risen to prominence in recent years, Mrs Yeo, Mrs Mellor, Mrs Parkinson and Mrs Clark not least amongst them.