The PM’s partner has one of the toughest jobs in politics even though it’s not a political appointment. That’s the nub of the difficulty. The role is undefined and unpaid. And whatever the partner does can be labelled a blunder and used to attack the prime minister. I’ve just written a play, ‘Cherie – My Struggle’, about Mrs Blair’s life inside Downing Street. Carrie Symonds is bound to face many of the difficulties Cherie had to grapple with.
First, security. Cherie was shocked to learn that she couldn’t leave Number 10 without informing her close protection officers. They accompanied her everywhere, even to the chemist. She was banned from driving her own car. On one occasion she escaped out the back and vanished for a couple of hours but when she returned she discovered that her security team had been reprimanded. She never did it again.
Tiny details of her life held unexpected risks. Choosing clothes for herself or her family meant buying British. Otherwise the tabloids would accuse her of ‘declaring war on UK fashion.’
She was surprised by the sheer time and effort involved in the job. Hosting summits and flying abroad with the prime minister sounds glamorous and it probably is. Once. After a bit, it becomes a chore. And wherever you go, you’re never the centre of attention or the person everyone wants to meet.
At home, the workload never ends. Fund-raisers and receptions are held at Downing Street on a weekly basis, and although Cherie could easily have bunked off these events she preferred to put in an appearance, to work the room, to offer handshakes and small-talk, and to pose for photographs. She never got a peep of thanks for it, of course, still less a penny in payment.
So my first tip for Carrie: never complain. Expect no gratitude. Be aware that the press will pillory you in hurtful and humiliating ways. However, this may work in your favour. Denis Thatcher was mocked as a drunken half-wit and he played up to the distortion because it carried a message that was helpful to his wife: a sozzled Dennis couldn’t possibly wield any political influence over Mrs Thatcher. That suited her fine and he gallantly took the abuse.
Secondly, keep your distance from the paps. Avoid the Sarah Ferguson elephant-trap of wanting to seem larky and good fun. The Duchess of York’s open-heartedness was taken by the tabloids as a sign of weakness and they tried to destroy her.
Thirdly, aim to be inscrutable. If you come across as aloof and unfriendly, take that as a win.
But the toughest advice surrounds public speaking. Cherie maintained a rigid silence during her husband’s time in office, (aside from her work as a barrister.) Making any statement in public presents a risk that offers you no upside at all. Consider the names Philip May, Sarah Brown and Norma Major and ask yourself what they are known for saying. The answer is nothing. Look at their tactics and see how they came out on top.
The press are desperate to turn you into a long-running saga so it’s worth devising a caricature that suits you rather than them. Norma Major took up a scholarly interest in opera which made journalists yawn and satirists frown. It was a smart move. Find a big-name charity and identify with it heavily because championing a cause is nearly as dull as writing about Verdi.
Finally, the best and easiest advice of all: keep a diary and one day it will keep you.
‘Cherie – My Struggle’ is on at the Edinburgh fringe festival. To buy tickets, click here