Editor-At-Large: Oh Sarah, you've just taken a step back for women

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The Independent Online

I like Sarah Brown, always have. She's tough, resilient and doesn't suffer fools. Until last week, I had marked her as a woman who'd stand her ground and not be pushed around by anyone. So what happened? Suddenly you can't open a newspaper without a picture of Sarah with her shiny new meet-the-people smile. There's Sarah in a sequinned top with Sarah, the freaky hockey mom who has designs on the White House; Sarah snapped with Wendi Deng, aka Mrs Rupert Murdoch; Sarah with the most worrying of all her new girlfriends, Sarah Ferguson, the ex-royal who wants to help us fight obesity. Sarah Brown used to be a highly successful PR woman – and after her marriage to Gordon she morphed into a wife who'd opted to remain firmly in the background. At a reception in Downing Street a few years later, I told her my sister was having a tough time with cancer. When Pat died, Sarah wrote me a personal letter of condolence, which I greatly appreciated. It was typical of her thoughtfulness.

Sarah has spent her married life supporting the charities she feels passionately about, and bringing up her two small sons. I thought that her decision to adopt a low profile was admirable, and quite unusual in our celebrity-driven culture. Who can forget Tony Blair – who told the media his family should be given privacy – posing on the steps of Downing Street clutching new baby Leo? What a photo opportunity!

At the end of a week in which Sarah took centre stage at the Labour Party conference to introduce her husband, boarded a private plane to New York (giving a free ride to Elle Macpherson and Sarah Ferguson), and then hosted a dinner with Queen Rania of Jordan and Wendi Deng, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that she's decided to raise her profile and return to the old Sarah of her PR past.

You can tell things are grim when a tightly buttoned-up bloke such as Gordon Brown adopts Yankee tactics, using his wife as a way of wooing voters. Sarah Brown, like Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, isn't running for office. She hasn't been voted into power by anyone. She lives a comfy, nice, middle-class life with a hubby who has no mortgage worries and a fat pension when he leaves office. When Gordon was asked when they decided she should introduce his speech at the Labour conference, he had the gall to reply, "We talked about it in the summer." Rubbish – this tactic was pulled out of the bag after seeing how wives were being flaunted on the other side of the Atlantic. Sarah's move is a step backwards for women; I would have been more impressed if she'd taken the microphone and announced she'd decided to run for Parliament, instead of acting as her fella's warm-up.

Jetting off to New York to host a celebrity-laden lunch supports my belief that many famous women use charity as the ultimate form of networking – no matter how worthy the cause. When Sarah hosted a lunch in the UK, attended by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, female journalists were thrilled to receive free tickets, ensuring a tidal wave of gush about Carla and Sarah. The truth is, politics is a brutal, punishing, macho world – look how Ruth Kelly was hung out to dry when she dared to announce she was stepping down to spend time with her family. Sarah's behaviour reinforces the notion that the best place for women in politics is standing one step behind their husband.

Screen test Television's challenges hit a new low

Bad news if you think that reality television has run its course. The BBC's 'Maestro' seemed to mark a more upmarket version of the genre, as it involved classical music – and everyone I know thinks that Goldie was robbed – but a couple of forthcoming shows mark a return to more familiar territory. This Thursday, the Living channel unveils 'The Underdog Show', in which 10 celebrities, including Lesley Joseph and Brian Blessed, have to train mutts from animal refuges. I'd be more interested if the underdogs concerned were failing football teams that armchair footie fans had to get back on their feet. Meanwhile, ITV has come up with the most outrageous idea yet. 'Paris Hilton's My New Best Friend' will be hitting our screens in the new year. This involves eight wannabe friends of the pouting princess who are put through a series of tough challenges before one claims the ultimate accolade – Paris is their (temporary) buddy. Hopefully one of the challenges won't involve a contestant being videoed having sex with one of her ex-boyfriends – that's surely too hot for ITV, although Trinny and Susannah have been stripping off in search of ratings.

Why we're all rooting for turnips

First, Waitrose announces it is going to promote offal and cheap cuts of meat. Now Tesco reports another milestone in recession cuisine – turnip sales are up 75 per cent. Of course that statistic means very little, because as far as I know turnips have not exactly been popular with your typical Tesco shopper, whose trolley tends to be laden with pizzas, cheap beer, wine and bogof baked beans. I love turnips – some chefs may sneer at them, but they are the star of my vegetable patch. I don't demean my gorgeous little pink and white turnips by using them to bulk out stews, where they can be swamped in gravy and overcooked. I toss them in oil and roast them whole or in quarters – delicious with shoulder of lamb. They're nutty and gorgeous. Bit like me.

Make school meals compulsory

At last Ed Balls follows my advice by offering free school meals – the only way to get kids eating healthily. Why aren't school meals compulsory? Sometimes it's best to set boundaries and impose rules, especially if many parents don't at home. I'd like to see children cooking their own lunch within five years – then you'd be making progress and teaching them all sorts of skills. Meanwhile, education bosses in Durham claim that pupils who took fish oil and evening primrose oil supplements in a trial improved their exam results by up to two grades. Many scientists think the numbers involved were too small to be meaningful, and say that home life should have been considered. If all children had compulsory well-balanced lunches, schools wouldn't need to act as promotional tools for companies flogging supplements.

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