If Justine Thornton is going to hit the campaign trail, she is setting a risky precedent

Supportive but silent is the established pattern for political spouses – and for good reason

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The Independent Online

Two thumbs up and definitely five stars to Justine Thornton for her appearance as “Mrs Miliband” with James Landale on the BBC. She was calm, considered and serious. She cleverly expanded her role by explaining that she wasn’t just fighting for Ed, but for every politician who wanted decency in public life. You couldn’t disagree with that, but where does she go from here?

British leaders’ wives have traditionally had silent, walk-on parts in election campaigns. It suited Denis Thatcher, the only male consort, to rumble around a few steps behind Margaret when they appeared in public together. He certainly never got up and gave a speech in her defence.

Norma Major never made a political speech. She gave very occasional magazine interviews about decorating the conservatory in her Huntingdon home, and charities she supported. After her husband’s retirement she was in demand to talk about her book Chequers, the Prime Minister’s Country House and its History.

In the 2001 election Cherie Blair and Ffion Hague both had walkabout parts as the Leaders’ Wives, but neither of them uttered a single word. Day after day, and week after week, they appeared as mummies on the campaign trail. Cherie was filmed receiving acupuncture in a church hall in the Midlands, but the minute she opened her mouth to say ouch, a Labour aide was on hand to encourage her to shut up. Ffion, smiling and silent, followed in William’s footsteps wherever he went. Both women took time off work to play these heroic silent roles.

Cherie’s contributions were generally agreed to be embarrassing. Forbidden to speak, she joined in with an impromptu singalong when she and Tony visited an old folks home, and was mocked by journalists.

 

It was all very different from the way things went in America where presidential spouses were always expected to have opinions and views of their own.

Michelle Obama is the spouse across the water most admired by British first ladies. On the campaign trail, when Barack was fighting it out with Hillary Clinton, Michelle described her husband as an ordinary bloke who left his socks all over the floor, had bad breath and a temper to match in the mornings. The voters loved her for it (a snapshot of family life just like their own) and she went on to play an enormous part in both of Obama’s elections. She had her own campaign schedule, she made her own political speeches, and on key occasions she appeared on the platform to introduce her husband.

But being the wife of the US President is a very different role from the wife of the British Prime Minister. For a start, it’s a proper job with a budget, a staff and a White House department. British spouses have no official role, and certainly no budget. Ipsa, the MPs’ finance controllers, won’t even pay for spouses to visit the House of Commons, let alone give them a clothes budget, or a hair and make-up allowance. Whatever contribution Justine Miliband might make, she’ll be spending her own money, and doing it in her own time.

But Michelle Obama’s success in giving her husband a public profile that was so reassuringly normal was picked up in the UK by Sarah Brown, the first leader’s spouse to be given a speaking role in British politics. “I know he’s not a saint,” she said, introducing Gordon Brown at a Labour Party conference. “He’s messy, he’s noisy, he gets up at a terrible hour – but I know that he wakes up every morning and goes to bed every evening thinking about the things that matter. I know he loves our country and I know he will always, always put you first.”

Sarah was good at the job. She sounded believable, she looked the part and throughout Brown’s brief reign she did a great deal to humanise his public image. Right to the end, really. Their departure from Downing Street on foot – hand in hand, with their two little boys – was a heartrending scene from family life, whatever way you voted.

Samantha Cameron has been the most successful leader’s spouse in modern times. She has a public image of her own, and interests of her own. She manages to boost her husband’s profile just because he’s lucky enough to be married to her. Photographs in the tabloids of the Downing Street kitchen with each item thoughtfully labelled with maker and price, cleverly show us all that the Camerons use mugs just like ours, and keep the breakfast cereal in the packets just like we do.

Justine Thornton has come up with something new and different. She’s given us a clue that she won’t be the silent spouse on the campaign trail, and somehow I feel she won’t be inviting us into her clinically clean kitchen again. She says she will appear and have something to say when the occasion merits it. It’s a definite first in British campaign politics and it could give the Miliband image the prod towards serious thoughtfulness that it needs.

Linda McDougall is the author of ‘Cherie – The Perfect Life of Mrs Blair’

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