The days when political wives just showed up to kiss their husbands at party conferences is long gone. But, asks Juliet Meyers, is that an improvement?
In the run-up to tomorrow’s election, the three main party leaders have become more like old-school comedians than politicians, with their proclamations of “take my wife”.
The hell of the “fragrant other half” used to be confined to the annual party conference. As everyone applauded excessively and guffawed at her husband’s and his mates’ speeches, she sat there mute, smiling and looking demure while people scrutinised what she was wearing. Then she kissed him like he was a hero and everyone thought, “Wow, he’s tapping that.”
Now, the wives are used to canvass votes and deployed as weapons of mass distraction.
Beyond the questions of whether she is able to make intelligent conversation, be trusted not to post a photo of her husband’s bum on Facebook (assuming he can also) and doesn’t mind entertaining Bill Clinton if wife Hillary is elected US President, does it matter what the PM’s wife is like?
Some media still cannot evolve beyond commenting on the women’s clothing. It’s as if Maggie Smith’s dowager character in Downton Abbey has been drafted in for passive-aggressive duties, employing words like eye-catching and sensible to mean loud or boring and questioning the appropriateness of said attire to support their husband. (I’d be tempted to wear a T-shirt saying, “I’m with stupid.”)
All three women are highly accomplished. Nick Clegg’s wife Miriam González Durántez, who shunned the convention of going up to the podium to kiss her husband at his annual conference speech last year, is a partner in an international legal practice. Samantha Cameron is creative director of stationer Smythson and Justine Miliband is a barrister practising environmental law. All three should be regarded as excellent role models, juggling career with parenthood (albeit with help). Instead, it’s almost seen as a negative – many believing devotion to hubby and his career should come first.
Justine Miliband, who amusingly dismissed her husband becoming the object of teenage adoration in the #milifandom incident by rolling her eyes, is known professionally as Justine Thornton but had to change her surname to Miliband to demonstrate her support for her husband. Why not ask her to go the whole hog and change her entire name to ‘Wife of Ed’?
In the case of all three wives there has been discussion of whether they should give up their jobs, even though in a few days it may one of their husbands who steps down from his role.
Not only has each wife had to publically declare their faith in their husband to do the job but also take part in a stage-managed display of their togetherness. Next they will be on All-Star Mr and Mrs. At least we’d finally find out something about their menfolk’s policies as Philip Schofield enthusiastically asked, “Your husband comes home and mentions £9bn is needed to save the NHS. Does he a) Privatise it? b) Put up taxes? c) Nick it out of your handbag?”
We’ve heard Cameron talk about date nights and joke about his wife being broody. Having babies is always a vote-winner, but hasn’t Kate Middleton just ‘served the nation’ in that respect? Last week we saw Nick Clegg and his wife preparing a crumble together (Isn’t it a bit late to show us him working in coalition?).
This attempt to show us their soft side is not only transparent but also highly patronising as a way to win female votes. If they want more femininity in their campaign shouldn’t they do this through having a greater proportion of female MPs and more female-friendly policies?
“Last week we saw Nick Clegg and his wife preparing a crumble together. Isn’t it a bit late to show us him working in coalition?”
So what of the other parties? Former UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom once joked that wives should clean more behind the fridge. In fact Nigel Farage’s publicity-shy wife simply prefers to stay out of the limelight – convenient as she is German and Farage himself is a so-called ‘big personality’.
The case of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is typical of most female leaders, in that not much focus is given to their husbands, who aren’t portrayed as accessories. When quizzed about the immaculate state of her home (would a male leader be asked this?) Sturgeon replied that her husband, also the chief executive of the SNP, did the cleaning and often did the cooking.
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, chooses to keep her private life just that, but has previously said her party would be open to discussing three-way marriages and polygamy. Now, that really would keep the media busy if the trend for focus on political partners continues.
Juliet Meyers is performing her show Flavour of the Moth in Brighton on 30 May. More details here: Flavour of the Moth – Comedy – Brighton Fringe2024 Views
Juliet Meyers is a writer (for radio and television), comedian, feminist and middle-lane swimmer. @julietmeyers