The Downing Street Wives Club
As the Labour, Tory, and Liberal Democrat leaders fight on after their first debate, Venetia Thompson sizes up their spouses—Sarah Brown (dowdy), Samantha Cameron (bohemian), and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez (high-powered).
Being the wife of a politician isn’t easy, especially in the run-up to an election when, bored with the boys’ exploits, public and media attention quickly turns to what their other halves are wearing and doing for a bit of light relief. Most political wives and girlfriends, or WAGS, end up precariously straddling the fence somewhere between down-to-earth glam and buttoned-up frump.
Sarah Brown, wife of Britain’s Labour prime minister—at least until the May 6 elections—is upping the ante. A former public-relations executive who transformed herself into chief cheerleader for domestic violence and breast cancer charities when she saw an opening, she has somehow gone, over the last year, from being Gordon Brown’s unknown wife to first mum. Gone is her previous reserve—on her way to garnering 1.1 million Twitter followers, making her one of the U.K.’s most popular, she’s had her hair colored, started wearing makeup, and begun trying to win over every mother and wife in Britain.
What a woman—pity we can’t vote for Miriam, she’s the best thing about the Lib Dems.
She even has a column in the Daily Mirror to go with her “Sarah” blog on the prime minister’s Web site and, of course, the Twitter updates. Last week she wrote that after a week on the election trail, her motto is fast becoming “A handbag is not complete without a spare phone charger, a pair of flats and a pretty pad to write down the details.”
There’s something a little pathetic and try-hard about this. I can’t imagine Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy worrying about whether she has a pair of flat shoes with her or a pretty notepad to doodle on.
It’s easy to see Brown, 46, as the embodiment of middle England, in all of its slightly dowdy, flat-shoed, puffy-haired glory, trailing around after her husband of nearly a decade like a Labrador. Gordon never even holds her hand.
I’ve been following her on Twitter for a long time trying to find out what all the fuss is about. Whilst I admire her dedication to various charities and constant lobbying on their behalf, I am amazed that she’s managed to get 1,117,911 followers when her tweets are largely obsequious drivel such as “at GMTV, fascinated by a behind the scenes tour,” and the recent gem “bit of a shame to see my toes getting so much attention: was born with very wonky toes and really can’t do much about them,” after she was seen barefoot at a Hindu temple. There is now also a YouTube channel, Sarah Brown on the Road, containing a cringe-worthy 27-second clip of Sarah explaining what will happen to her Twitter account now that an election has been called—because that is of course the concern that immediately sprung to everyone’s mind when the queen dissolved Parliament: Will Sarah keep tweeting? And if the endless sartorial updates are anything to go by, what will she be wearing?
As Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, wife of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, said in a TV interview this week, “patronizing is putting it very diplomatically.” Quite. Whilst Samantha Cameron, wife of Tory leader David Cameron, and Sarah Brown set off with their husbands on the campaign trail, dropping in for tea on unsuspecting voters, chatting to local residents in the streets and battling hecklers, Miriam went off to her job as an international lawyer. Her explanation, in a rare interview, with ITV? “I don’t have the luxury of having a job that I can simply abandon for five weeks, and I imagine that is the situation for most people in this country.”
She went on to say, “It’s a bit frivolous…knowing where your clothes come from,” and even dared to get a little political (WAGS are really not supposed to mention politics): “I think that the voters deserve better, deserve more focus on the policies and less on the clothes.”
Miriam did, however, abandon her high-powered day job to help her husband build a dry-stone wall in Yorkshire, getting down and dirty in a field and in so doing providing a perfect Lib Dem election photo-op.
“I will continue supporting Nick whenever I can and that has to be compatible with having the life I have,” she said. Perhaps she can build a wall in her lunch break and still get back to her law firm for an afternoon’s work? What a woman—pity we can’t vote for her, she’s the best thing about the Lib Dems.
Whilst David Cameron is winning in the polls, Miriam is winning the battle of the WAGS without even trying.
But Samantha Cameron cannot be underestimated. She currently occupies the middle ground between disinterested Miriam and self-righteous Sarah. SamCam has even been let off the leash to campaign alone, and when she’s not alone, she’s holding Dave’s hand rather than trailing behind. She’s not allowed to answer questions from the press because she’s “not a politician,” but the Tories are happy for her to roam around the country and even speak on the WebCameron channel for longer than 27 seconds.
She will not be giving up her job as creative director at Smythson, the luxury Bond Street stationer, and will only be campaigning a couple of days a week, but it is clear that the Tories are upping SamCam’s involvement where possible. Yet there is none of the marked desperation of Sarah. One gets the impression that whilst she’s the brains behind a brand that makes plenty of “pretty notepads,” she would never feel it necessary to carry one around to write down all the baffling details of her husband’s campaign. After all, SamCam is still the woman that replied “I f****** hope not” when a neighbor, seeing a moving van a few years ago, joked that the next time she’d be moving it would be to Downing Street.
The U.K. is sadly never going to be lucky enough to have a first lady like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy or Michelle Obama—it’s simply not our style. We’re British, we don’t like anything too aspirational: We like low-maintenance, slightly dowdy, vapid first wives. Samantha Cameron is probably the best we can realistically hope for—slightly bohemian, blue-blooded, and with impeccable taste in stationary. It could be worse.
Venetia Thompson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Spectator. Her memoir Gross Misconduct was published in April by Simon and Schuster UK. She lives in London.