"I've become the man who accompanied Ffion Jenkins to the Conservative Party conference," William Hague remarked mock-ruefully as the photographers jostled for just one more shot of his glamorous fiancee. Young, fresh- faced, full of vim and relatively photogenic, the opposition leader's future wife is just what the Tories need at the moment. And they have milked her for everything she has.
Well, perhaps not quite everything. Bear in mind that Miss Jenkins, 29, is an Oxford graduate who used to play clarinet with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and who wrote an M.Phil thesis, entirely in Welsh, on the English bard Thomas Gray. Bear in mind also that she gave up her job as a top-flight civil servant after her engagement in March - she met Mr Hague when she was his private secretary at the Welsh Office - and has recently become director of operations at the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts.
Now, though, she stands mute beside her man. "There are no words from Ffion," explains her friend and press minder for the week, Nickie Durbin. Cherie Booth does not give interviews, she adds, so neither does Ffion. The energies of the political wife, it seems, must be devoted entirely to the twin tasks of looking immaculate and keeping schtum. Every word which passes her lips must be carefully vetted for the telltale traces of the "power behind the throne" syndrome.
There is something slightly different about Ffion, though. Take the scene in the Imperial Hotel, Blackpool, on Tuesday evening. Around 8.30pm, the foyer filled with an array of long lenses and flash guns which would have done any Hollywood star proud.
The reason? They had been called upon to record the wonder of Ffion's new frock. It has to be said that this rather natty mini-skirted black lace number by Neil Cunningham had been the cause of much speculation over a number of days. It had been rumoured - falsely, according to party sources - to have cost pounds 2,000. But even so, the event did mark a departure in political spin-doctoring. Cherie's clothes may provoke a quite unwarranted amount of comment, but at least her minders do not invite the press along specifically to photograph her latest outfit.
Ffion, of course, is younger than any party leader's other half has ever been. But still, the occasion was a bizarre one. After keeping the photographers waiting for 45 minutes, the pair appeared on the stairs and stood so there so stiffly that onlookers would have been forgiven for believing that they had never met before. Urged on by the crowds, they put their arms shyly around one another; but a request for Mr Hague to kiss his fiancee was greeted by the reply, "You'll have to wait until the wedding for that."
Despite the apparent awkwardness - on one of their earliest photocalls, she even had to guide his arm around her waist - the week has been a great success for her. As well as the photocall for her dress, she has been on show greeting Baroness Thatcher, visiting a children's play park and attending between 40 and 50 receptions with Mr Hague.
But according to Miss Durbin, a former Conservative press officer and friend of Miss Jenkins' from Cardiff who has taken on the job of temporary minder along with Sally Hendry, wife of the former High Peak MP Charles Hendry, she is enjoying the role. "Her priority is to back her fiance, her future husband," she says.
"She's a very strong woman, a very intelligent woman, and she takes it all in her stride. She's a normal person like you and me. Six months ago nobody knew her, and suddenly she got engaged to the Secretary of State for Wales. The sheer volume of interest has been surprising, but I think she has coped admirably."
Meanwhile, Mr Hague seems to have a penchant for saying the wrong thing where his fiancee is concerned. "I like women so much that I've even decided to marry one," he told a meeting of Conservative women the other night.
Fortunately the party faithful are not shaken by gaffes such as this, and they seem to regard their leader's engagement as a wholly positive development. They have taken Ffion to their hearts, just as the press have. "She has been very touched by how people have treated her, both the representatives and the Conservative Party as a whole," says Nickie Durbin.
There had been grumbling in some quarters about the fact that the couple were to share a suite at the Imperial during the conference - Lady Thatcher was rumoured to have said they should have got married first. But the party in its new liberal mode does not seem worried. In fact, the stories helped to quell the malicious speculation that Hague's unexpected engagement two weeks before the general election was announced might have been rather too convenient, or even that he was gay.
As far as the party is concerned, Ffion is 100 per cent positive. "She's young and vital and she's just what we need," one Tory lady explained. "After all, it is 1997."
The fact that their leader's partner must remain silent does not worry them. Ffion is said not to talk about politics, even in private. Even Miss Durbin does not know her friend's views. "She isn't a political animal in the way that her husband-to-be is. She is here to support her fiance." When it was rumoured that Ffion was at odds with Mr Hague on the issue of Welsh devolution, he claimed they had not even discussed the subject.
For someone with her background, this seems more than a little strange. Her father is Emyr Jenkins, chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, and her older sister, Dr Manon Williams, is a key member of the Prince of Wales's staff. As a sentient member of the upper echelons of Welsh society, a former Welsh Office civil servant and the fiancee of a former Secretary of State for Wales, Ms Jenkins might be expected to have thought about devolution in recent months. But even if she does have strongly held views on political issues, she will be expected to keep them to herself in future.
There may be differences between the publicising of Cherie, the high- flying QC wife of the Prime Minister, and Ffion, the potentially equally high-flying fiancee of William Hague, but together their packaging represents a new strand of political culture. Just as we have come to accept that these women are likely to lead separate lives of their own which are quite unconnected to their partners' careers, we are diminishing their public roles.
Glenys Kinnock could continue with her own political activities, although she was sometimes criticised for it. Denis Thatcher could make the odd crass remark in public and swill gin. Ffion Jenkins and Cherie Booth, meanwhile, must spend a fortune on haute couture in which to pose for pictures with children and animals. Heaven forbid that they should be allowed to open their mouths. After all, they might cause a scandal by saying something sensible. Let us hope, for their sakes, that their men are worth it.Reuse content