Page last updated at 13:56 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 14:56 UK

Changing role of a political spouse

Sarah Brown
Sarah Brown called her husband a hero in her speech

The prime minister's wife, Sarah Brown, made a speech at the Labour Party conference for the second year in a row.

In it, she described her husband as "intense, intelligent and gentle" and pressed home his total dedication to his country.

The move drew a mixed reaction from newspaper commentators and led to comparisons between Mrs Brown and US First Lady Michelle Obama.

Some see using one's spouse as a powerful campaign tactic while others view it as undemocratic and sexist.


Ros Wynne-Jones, writing in the Daily Mirror, says Sarah Brown is responsible for the change in the role of the political spouse in the UK:

Britain traditionally has a tough relationship with its First Ladies. But in two years, Sarah Brown has achieved the kind of national treasure status of which Norma Major and Cherie Blair could only dream. Fortunately for her husband, she also made it clear she wouldn't want Gordon's job.

Patrick O'Flynn, writing in the Daily Express, sees a successful spouse as a valuable asset:

She did not quite say that she had the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart of a king - as Elizabeth told the British sailors at Tilbury - but Sarah Brown emerged as a formidable campaign weapon. She did not know much about economics or the science of climate change, she said, but she did know about her husband. Her proclamation of belief in this "messy, noisy" man had many over-sentimental Labour delegates dabbing their eyes, hating themselves for ever doubting him. When she held his hand at the end, his smile was for once unforced. Gordon Brown looked sort of human.

Celia Walden says in the Daily Telegraph that Sarah Brown showed politicians' wives have no choice now but to spout subservient adoration:

I'd rather politicians' wives were spared their annual patriotic tap-dance and allowed to remain in the shadows, like Denis Thatcher, who turned being self-effacing into its own vote-winning art form, or Angela Merkel's husband, who refuses to join his wife at party conferences. But we all know now that is simply not an option. And so, in a climate when the prime ministerial salary should, realistically, be doubled and split between husband and wife, anything the 'First Lady' does say about her husband will be lambasted as sickly and subservient. The truth of the matter is that she's a heroine to do it at all.

Alice Thomson in the Times says Sarah Brown made a terrible mistake by standing by her man publicly:

Does she realise that she has set the cause of women back by years? What's the point in Harriet Harman introducing equality legislation, when Gordon's wife is telling the girls to vote for Mr Brown because she still fancies him and he is a gentle soul, not because of his economic policy - figures are far too hard for the weaker sex to grasp. Give me Miyuki Hatoyama, the Japanese Prime Minister's wife, any day. She might talk about visiting Venus and being abducted by aliens, but she is being herself. Carla Bruni demands to be seen as a model and singer in her own right. Even Cherie Blair was a better example. She may have 'dropped the ball' occasionally, but at least she showed that a woman's place in the 21st century is not just standing two steps behind your man.

Ben Macintyre in the Times longs for the reign of Norma Major and Dennis Thatcher, claiming the rise of the political spouse is undemocratic:

Sarah Brown is a talented and interesting person. But no one voted for her. She does not run the country or the economy and she is not up for re-election. We really do not need her to tell us that her husband is messy, noisy and gets up early, let alone to offer a prediction on the future of her marriage: 'We'll be together for all time.' That is lovely for them, but frankly it is none of our business. Mrs Brown's appeal was lifted directly from the Michelle Obama playbook, reflecting the way that America's First Lady has transformed and expanded the role of political spouse. No-one would want to return to the days of the invisible partner, when Her Indoors at No 10 was expected to bake cakes, say nothing and stay out of the limelight. But the pendulum has now swung wildly in the other direction, to the point where a prime minster's wife is now treated as a pliant celebrity, wheeled out not just to stand by her man, but to prop up.

Allison Pearson in the Daily Mail says using Sarah Brown to promote Gordon is dangerous for gender politics:

Sarah Brown was the surprise hit of last year's conference. Modest, appealing and recognisably human, Mrs Brown was the rabbit that party managers pulled out of the hat to try to distract us from the carnage of her husband's political career. Her protective gesture of support for Gordon felt fresh, authentic and kind. All qualities that are sorely lacking in politics. But I'm afraid that wheeling out Gordon's missus for the second year running and turning her introduction into an aria of adulation was a terrible miscalculation. Any powerful woman who used her unelected spouse as a support act would be seen as weak and gutless. Critics would say that her husband was the real power behind the throne. And they'd have a point, wouldn't they?

Matthew Engel in the Financial Times outlines one danger of the political spouse - instead of offering support, the voter sees a likeable alternative leader:

Frankly, by the end of it my yearning for a change at the top had increased. I commend the solution pioneered by the Clinton family. Get rid of Gordon. Vote Sarah.


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