Who would be a politician's wife in 1997?

Political partners are trapped by voters' prejudice, media hypocrisy and marital commitment

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So Cherie Booth is to have her own adviser for the election campaign, is she? Great. She needs one. Someone has to deal with columns like this one, features about Tony Blair's family life, featurettes about Cherie's taste in clothes, news stories about her latest court case, and the countless other snippets and snipes about the Labour leader's other half. Everybody will want a bite at Cherie in the next few months. And you can guarantee that most of them will dig their teeth in hard.

Well let's hope they snap so hard they bite their own tongues off - because none of them have a clue what they are talking about. Chauvinists in the right-wing press rant that Ms Booth (and you can hear them hissing as they say "Mizzzzz") is too pushy, and should stay quietly at home. On the other hand, the people who ought to identify with her predicament - women who have fought against gender stereotypes all their lives - lambaste her for compromising, for cuddling Tony in public, and even editing an issue of the popular women's magazine Prima.

Both sides, it seems, would rather she simply shut up and remained on the sidelines. The fact that she is to have an election campaign aide to herself will get them all salivating again.

But the truth is that the spouse of a political leader can't slip silently into the shadows these days - it isn't possible. Voters want to know how human their politicians are. The quickest way of proving humanity - particularly for a man - is to produce a wife. A Mrs in the wings is shorthand for: I can look after people, love people and support people. And guess what, I am heterosexual; loveable and fanciable, too.

There are other ways to produce a credible hinterland, but this is the fastest and, in these intolerant times, the most acceptable. Keep that spouse under wraps, on the other hand, and people become suspicious, curious and fascinated. And opponents gleefully conclude that the wife or husband may be a weak point to attack.

So spousie has to have a public persona - even if it is only rolled out once in a while. Denis had one, Norma had one, so did Glenys. Now Cherie has one, too. And there is little point in slagging them off for the particular public roles they have each been landed with - because each has had little freedom to manoeuvre. Political partners are trapped; cornered by voters' prejudices, media hypocrisy and by their own commitment to the party, and to the politician they share their beds with. Wives, husbands, Labour, Conservative, many of the dilemmas are the same. But to be wife to the first Labour leader of the baby boom generation is probably the worst combination of all.

Oh for the days - and the balls - of Denis. Male and retired, Denis Thatcher could play the strong, silent type. OK, some people said he was a wimp because his wife was so forceful and powerful, but at least he never had to pretend to be a wimp in public. Denis was never required to slide onto the stage at an English seaside resort to snuggle with Margaret at the end of her speech. Not so the political wives.

But what choice have they got? Leave John Major on stage on his own and his is one among a sea of grey hair, grey faces and grey suits. Margaret Thatcher, surrounded by lots of male cabinet members, was glamorous enough. But until the main parties have more women's faces in their cabinets, their male leaders need a wife on hand to break the monotony. After all, this is a selling game. People like looking at and buying pictures of women. Not for nothing are the front covers of men's magazines and women's magazines alike smeared with women's smiles.

Being a political wife, rather than a husband, is doubly difficult. Not only is the press attention more acute, but the role required is - for the moment - more controversial. Husbands can be themselves, so long as they don't talk politics. But wives discover, as soon as they are thrust on the public stage, that everything about them threatens other people, and therefore threatens votes.

In the space of a generation, the choices available to women have expanded considerably. But we are all still terribly touchy about the decisions other women have made. Confronted with a housewife, mothers who went back to work feel defensive and guilty. Seeing a successful career woman, those who stayed at home feel inadequate. Faced with a Norma Major, young women feel frustrated and irritated at the doors she failed to open for us. Watching a dynamic Cherie Booth QC, older women feel their own lives devalued.

That's just the women's vote. Men are worse. If they don't feel threatened directly by independent women, they are often confused and unable to warm to changing women's roles.

Of course a leader's wife could blaze a brilliant trail by publicly distancing herself from traditional women's roles. She could refuse to be seen smiling at her husband's side, avoid party conferences, and stick to pursuing her own career. She could stand up and shout to the world that she is not a politician nor is she a politician's accessory. But what would she or anyone else gain from it?

She would be crucified by the right-wing press, who would distort and caricature her views. (Just think what the media have done to Hillary Clinton.) Voters, especially other women who our crusading political wife never meant to attack, would interpret her behaviour as criticism of them. And her party could lose the election because of it.

In the circumstances, then, it is easy to see why the working wife of an opposition leader should go out of her way to emphasise the unthreatening side - the Prima side, the mother side, the "I love my husband" side. This is not giving in; it is acknowledging the sexist political world we live in, making gradual progress, and staying sane. Just to carry on working after taking up residence at No 10 would be an achievement.

Other people, other women, can do a lot more shouting. They can change attitudes towards women's roles by daring to be confrontational, and where necessary by offending people. But it is hard for political parties and their representatives to leap too far ahead of public opinion. Women politicians have a tough enough time advocating their cause and maintaining some control over the public role they play. Politicians wives - especially opposition politician's wives - don't stand a chance.

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