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Mobilising Her Indoors
This Green and Surprisingly Pleasant Land - the PM spouse dilemma
What planet was the small rich fella on when he came up with the idea to shove his wife on stage at the Tory party conference to sing his praises? Maybe the sad reality was that Rishi No Mates couldn’t find anyone else to do it.
But there was every reason for Mr Sunak to stick with the original plan to keep his wife, Akshata Murty, well away from the political limelight. She had, after all, already been bruised by the controversy surrounding her non-resident status for the purpose of tax dodging. Surely he knows that being the prime minister’s spouse is the worst non-job in British politics.
It’s not just Ms Murty who has found this out the hard way, there is a long tradition of prime minister’s wives getting a bad press, the only question is how bad.
Wives tend to end up being stereotyped into one of two unflattering categories. If they are actively engaged in politics, as was the case with Carrie Johnson and Cherie Blair, they are accused of meddling and exerting undue influence on their husbands. Wives like Norma Major and Audrey Callaghan, who were resolutely not political players were quite wrongly dismissed as being mousey and irrelevant.
Prime minister’s husbands are thinner on the ground and, surprise, surprise, less subject to criticism. Mr Liz Truss largely escaped scrutiny but that was only because his wife was pushed out the door before anyone bothered to learn his name.
Philip May, married to PM Theresa May, had a much better run and managed to stay well in the background while continuing to work as an investment manager despite the inconvenience of his wife’s job.
Denis Thatcher, whose wife’s hallowed name is uttered in the Tory ranks with the reverence generally reserved for the sainthood, was a ‘real character’. He looked and acted like everyone’s idea of the golf clubhouse duffer haunting the bar. Mr T was a firm supporter of his wife’s views but came to suspect that many of her colleagues were pinkos.
I met him once during a prime ministerial stopover in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, when he mistook me for a waiter as he placed an order for a G & T. Explaining that I was a journalist, he sniffed with disappointment and continued his search for a reviving beverage. I can confirm that he almost perfectly lived up to his caricature.
Back at Number 10 spouses are not given a title, although they are often mistakenly described in the media as being ‘First Ladies’ following the official American designation of the President’s wife. First Husband has yet to emerge as a thing, although I am still wondering what would have happened had Hilary Clinton secured the presidency and Bill Clinton followed her into the White House as First Former President Gentleman or whatever. Presumably it was this complexity over titles that contributed to Ms Clinton’s defeat.
As First Lady however Hilary Clinton had quite a role helped along by an office with some 20 staffers plus volunteers. The British prime ministerial spouse barely gets a desk and, at most, one ‘advisor’.
It hardly seems fair, not least because, like or not, the British spouses are often wheeled out for official duties. They are also expected to do good works and, of course, to smile on demand.
Thankfully the British media is decent enough to leave the prime minister’s offspring alone, unless, like the total tosser Mark Thatcher, their aberrant behaviour breaks the code of silence.
Lamentably even the best behaved spouses are given no slack. Like the royal family they are not expected to express views or comment on views attributed to them. This opens the door to lavish speculation which is met with sealed lips.
The dismal truth is that public figures, especially heads of government, cannot realistically expect their families not to suffer for their ambition. The degree of suffering is up to them.
It’s sad that Rishi No Mates could have found no one else to introduce him to the warring tribe that is the Conservative Party. His rash alternative, pushing his wife on stage, will most likely not turn out to be his best idea alongside an impressive list of other bad ideas.
Idiot of the Week
That would be anyone who questioned this Substack’s fervent support for the people of Old Oak Common who were dazzled by the prospect of the hi speed railway from Birmingham landing on their doorstep. Rishi Sunak has promised to stick with the original plan of termination at Euston Station, so it is safe to assume that this will not happen, not least because he put a big ‘but’ into his announcement, stipulating that it could only go to Euston if other folk could be persuaded to pay for it. So Old Oak Common can confidently contemplate a new and glorious future.