When Margaret Thatcher challenged Ted Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party 30 years ago, the contest had several unusual features; the least remarked was the fact that neither candidate had a wife, an omission that would cause consternation in our supposedly more sophisticated times. For the past eight years, Cherie Blair has rarely been out of the headlines, even if the spotlight has temporarily switched to the contest to select the man - the gender of the next Tory leader has never been in doubt - who will fight her husband's successor at the next general election.
Any woman who fancies the top Tory job next time round should reflect on the fact that what the party seems to like these days is someone called David, and change her name by deed poll. But while the main contest taking place up and down the country is between the two Davids, Davis and Cameron, another has broken out in the media, featuring the candidates' wives.
At first sight, Samantha versus Doreen is a no-brainer; Samantha is foxy, perhaps even a bit James-Bondish, while Doreen - well, let's just say Doreen isn't a name you hear middle-class parents calling out as they corral their offspring in Waitrose. Even so, anyone in the public eye is expected, indeed commanded, to place their private life in the public domain these days, which is how Doreen Davis comes to find herself at the centre of a media storm this week. On one level, it's surprising David Davis didn't see this one coming, instead of asking his wife to agree to an interview with the Daily Mail and blithely advising her just to be herself.
At this year's Tory conference, a silly stunt involving female supporters wearing T-shirts with crude "DD" jokes suggested that his approach to gender issues was not exactly cutting-edge; earlier this week, Mrs Davis duly invited a journalist into her lovely home and described her life in terms which suggested that being married to an ambitious politician is a rather bleak experience.
At the couple's house in Yorkshire, she described an isolated existence, sometimes not talking to her husband for days. She also revealed that they sometimes sleep in separate rooms when he does return from Westminster.
David Davis is married to a desperate housewife! This is a terrible thing, although it is difficult to say whether it is better or worse for a party leader than being married - just for the sake of example, of course - to a successful barrister and part-time judge.
What the country does now know for certain, thanks to Mrs Davis's unguarded remarks about her husband's antisocial habits - always on the phone, even when he's at home, or watching films with lots of shooting - is that he is driven, unlike cuddly family man David Cameron. Even more shockingly, Davis is "obsessed with politics" and thus quite unlike any other MP I've ever met. I think this also means he's unfit to lead the Conservative Party.
What all this illustrates is the way politicians' wives are quite cynically used against them. Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, both smart lawyers, were seen from the word go as their husbands' Achilles' heels, women who might put off traditionally-minded voters. Neither woman seemed totally at ease to begin with, their insecurities manifesting themselves in manic changes of hairstyle, in Mrs Clinton's case, and in Mrs Blair's curious reliance on Carole Caplin.
To this day, the Blairs seem undecided about where to draw boundaries, rightly insisting that Mrs Blair is entitled to her own opinions, which may differ from her husband's. At the same time, she periodically carries out functions as the Prime Minister's wife, taking on a role similar to that of First Lady in the US.
At this year's Labour conference, there was a surreal moment when I found myself trapped on Amnesty International's stall, which at first glance resembled a sex shop - it had been designed to publicise a campaign against sex-trafficking - beside Mrs Blair. As we chatted against a background that consisted mainly of sex toys, her huge entourage of press photographers snapped away and I discovered that she was touring the conference foyer to give a prize to the best stall.
I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, although I wonder why a busy barrister would spend time on it. For an intelligent woman, this kind of attention must sometimes be excruciating, but it is what any modern prime minister's wife can expect, unless she is incredibly strong-minded and refuses to collude in it.
Even Mrs Davis, who was hardly a public figure until this week, has just had a taste of the intense scrutiny she would get if her husband became the prime minister; after unkind comments about her weight and appearance, she may be grateful that that eventuality appears fairly unlikely.
For the moment, Samantha Cameron is faring better, being presented as an attractive working wife and mother, but she could metamorphose at any time into that right-wing hate figure, the woman who is trying to have it all. In that sense, all articles about political wives should come with a warning not to be taken at face value.
Not content with Mrs Davis's artless observations - proving, if nothing else, that she isn't either a product of spin or media-savvy - the Daily Mail yesterday staged a "great Doreen debate", asking two commentators to give their verdicts on the big question: is she a dutiful wife or has she wasted her life? Happily, they came to opposite conclusions, Rosie Boycott describing Mrs Davis as sad and long-suffering, while Amanda Platell hailed her as an extraordinary housewife.
While Mrs Davis may be confused by the way she has been portrayed, so might Mail readers, who have been given two apparently irreconcilable portraits of the same woman. But that is to misunderstand the paper's agenda, which is to damage Davis and confirm traditional values at the same time. Boycott felt sorry for Mrs Davis, concluding not that she should have returned to work after her marriage but that she was denied any choice in the matter. "I find it astonishing," she declared yesterday, "that a man who is putting himself forward to be our prime minister should conduct his family life in this way."
Having done the requisite damage to Davis, the Mail had Platell on hand to reassure readers his wife had held their family together and brought up three happy children. "Such women may be modest to a fault," she suggested. "But we should all hold them in high esteem."
Actually, I think we should do two things: leave politicians' wives alone and get more women into politics. Three decades after Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead a British political party, it's shocking that neither the Conservatives nor Labour have since produced a credible leadership candidate who happens to be a woman. In the meantime, the next best thing would be for us all to get over this pathetic obsession with leaders' wives.Reuse content