Leaders’ wives, why George Osborne is twitchy over Scotland, and the deadly legacy of alcopops

The IoS's political editor takes a look back at the week


A pang of sympathy jabbed me in the guts when I saw David Cameron with his hands full taking his daughter Florence to nursery last week. The Downing Street toddler is a month younger than my own daughter, and she has exactly the same paraphernalia for attending nursery. Even though a child cannot ride a scooter and push a doll’s pram at the same time, mine, like Florence, insists that both must come on the nursery run. The two girls even have the same unclothed, slightly grubby doll. It is a tricky business, juggling the accessories of a preschooler, and I haven’t felt this sorry for a Prime Minister since Gordon Brown was in Downing Street.

I really want to believe this wasn’t just an electioneering stunt. (I’m afraid to tell you, if you hadn’t realised already, that the 2015 election campaign has already started.) I do believe Cameron makes time for fatherhood. This is the area of life where he seems most natural and, as must be obvious to the Tories’ election strategist, Lynton Crosby, most appealing to women. So we need to try to forget about the Despatch Box calm-down-dear braying, and to think of him as Dad at Waitrose, or, in this era of food banks, Dad at Tesco. But women, at the moment, prefer Ed Miliband. There are more nursery runs to rack up.

If Cameron is finding time to be a hands-on Dad, what are we to make of his wife, Samantha, encroaching on political life? She has been criticised for urging him to intervene in the Syrian civil war, after visiting a refugee camp with Save the Children earlier this year.

But why shouldn’t she? Growing up on a 300-acre country estate and being creative director of an upmarket stationery firm shouldn’t exclude her from having a valid view about Syria, just as being raised on a council estate should not prevent someone from being an expert on the economy, say. Mrs Cameron has suffered the grief of losing a child, a never-ending agony that she could share with bereaved mothers at that tented encampment in Lebanon. Her life may be gilded with privilege, her stylist never far away, but she does possess a unique “outside-in” standpoint – she can overhear a running commentary on all the issues, domestic and foreign, that cross her husband’s desk, at the same time as engaging with the everyday routines of “ordinary” middle-class parents. Any decision on Syria still rests with the Prime Minister, but her input is valuable.

When it’s her turn to take Florence to nursery, perhaps Samantha hears the objections to the Government’s – now-shelved – ludicrous and dangerous plans to relax quotas for childcare. And what might she be told by fellow mothers at the gate of the state primary school her elder two children attend? Might some of them harangue her about minimum alcohol pricing, and plain packaging on cigarettes? With Crosby hanging around No 10, I would hope so.

In a different way, Cherie Blair – who is academically cleverer than her husband Tony – was vilified whenever she expressed an opinion. But this was because, in the eyes of some, she was a social-climbing Scouser, a proper greedy-guts who supermarket-swept her way through foreign trips. I disagreed with some of her views, but she had a right to express them.

There is a cliché we hacks use when we follow politicians on visits to the “real world”, which is that Cameron “saw for himself” the school, and Ed Miliband “saw for himself” the factory. Of course, the people at the school and factory know they’re coming; the venue was handpicked by advisers. I understand why they have to do it this way, but it is not very real. So we should encourage Cameron to take Florence to nursery more often, and let Sam Cam put across her view on foreign affairs. I would just advise the Prime Minister to leave the doll’s pram at home.

Softly-softly Scotland

I detect nerves in Whitehall at next year’s Scottish independence referendum. The polls show a consistent lead for a No vote (although the double-digit lead was cut to eight points in the last survey). Ministers are growing increasingly twitchy that the lead might be soft, and there is a fear of complacency. George Osborne, who is already Chancellor and helping to oversee the Conservatives election campaign, seems to be taking an ever-closer eye: he briefed Scottish journalists on the unionist case earlier this month. But they should be worried about the soft-power tricks the SNP is deploying. Alex Salmond, who needs to court the female vote, has asked Judy Murray to be his partner at a pro-am women’s golf event. After his clumsy unveiling of the Saltire at the Wimbledon final, is this a more subtle way to try to secure Andy Murray’s vote?

Not the lesser of two evils

The dramatic rise in the number of women in their thirties and forties dying from alcohol-related conditions is shocking, but can be explained by my own personal experience. I was born in the 1970s; I got drunk in the 1990s. When I turned 16 in 1989, my generation was shunning cider and beer for the new big thing – ecstasy. The drinks industry recognised that the takings in pubs and clubs was suddenly dropping – you don’t need to booze when an E lasts you all night. So they aggressively marketed cheap alcohol, including, specifically at girls, alcopops. I fell for this: by the mid-1990s I would happily drink dozens of bottles of Hooch or Two Dogs – basically, alcoholic lemonade – in one sitting. Demand for alcopops fell, but we young women moved on to white wine and cocktails. I believe the root cause of this generational tragedy lies in how we were turned away from recreational drugs and on to alcopops. We have may have been saved from ecstasy, but some of us have binged our way to a death sentence.

Flip-flop faux pas

My colleague Allegra Stratton, the BBC Newsnight’s political editor, has been criticised for committing the crime of being pregnant in the summer and refusing to conform to the Daily Mail’s maternity dress code. Jan Moir took her to task for – horror of horrors! – wearing flip-flops and a bright pink above-the-knee maternity dress while on screen. Being pregnant in 30C heat, I (and no doubt the Duchess of Cambridge) can tell you, is not fun, and flip-flops are your only salvation. At least Allegra wasn’t doing a Nick Clegg and going barefoot in the office.

I’m running the Royal Parks Half Marathon on 6 October for Save the Children. Please sponsor me at justgiving.com/jane-merrick/


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