Political wives and husbands do not have an enviable lot, and Prime Ministers’ consorts are no exception. Theirs is a thankless task – whether they forget their own identity and faithfully support their spouse as the other half, or try and retain a semblance of independence by doing their own thing. Either way it’s a ‘no win’ situation and they’re likely to find themselves a target from snipers in the electorate and the media and read their imaginary day-to-day lives parodied in the likes of Mrs Wilson’s Diary or the Dear Bill letters in Private Eye.
Author Diana Farr, in her new book, Five at 10: Prime Minister’s Consorts since 1957, sets out to answer the question: ‘What’s it like being married to the Prime Minister?’
Her motive for doing the book was a short spell as a minor consort herself: as the wife of the director of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. In her book she profiles Lady Dorothy Macmillan, Denis Thatcher, Lady Home, Lady Wilson and Audrey Callaghan – the last three of whom gave her interviews and checked their copy. She readily admits that some people may feel these interviews have little intrinsic interest. My main complaint is that for a book which is four-fifths about wives, by one herself, it curiously fails to draw a composite picture of domestic political life over the shop in No 10.
The inclusion of a few more meaty anecdotes about the dramas and disasters in the corridors of power could have given us a more realistic insight, such as Attlee doing a last-minute re-arrangement of the place a table at a lunch so that the French wouldn’t have to sit staring up at Wellington or Nelson; or the catering facilities being so lamentable that for one late-night beer and sandwiches summit in the Seventies, someone reportedly had to be dispatched to Victoria Station to provide them.
We do learn, though, from Mrs Farr that Lady Dorothy Macmillan found Madame de Gaulle a very tiresome guest. ‘She’s a very difficult woman to entertain. She has a thing about people. She won’t go to the hunt nor the cripples’ craft school nor even the pavilion at Brighton,’ she complains. This dearth of gossip tells us much about the attributes of a good consort: be discreet, say nothing to embarrass yourself, the Prime Minister, government or party.
It’s a non job. A Prime Minister’s consort isn’t even provided with an office or a secretary. ‘It’s what you make of it, ‘ Lady Wilson comments, and Denis Thatcher sees it in terms of damage limitation: ‘keeping my head below the parapet’.
I find Mrs Farr’s selection of consorts – all since 1957 – both restricting and disappointing, particularly as this is the 250th anniversary of No 10 as the official home of the Prime Minister. Perhaps she could have compiled a more illuminating book had she been more imaginative and selected a couple of consorts from the end of the last century or the beginning of this . Then she could have compared the pressures on them with those which face contemporary holders of the position. She could have included Margot Asquith – one of the great personalities to have lived in No 10 – or Mrs Gladstone, who was once asked, ‘Do you want to know everything or nothing?’
But Mrs Farr’s biographical studies tell us something, although we don ‘t glean all that much about what makes a consort tick. I even learnt a few details about my father from the 46 pages devoted to him.
I liked the comment from Audrey Callaghan, who doesn’t seem to find life after being the PM’s consort entirely to her liking. ‘What I dislike most is being a book widow,’ she told Mrs Farr, referring to her husband who was in hibernation at the time pumping out his memoirs. Perhaps a similar fate awaits Denis in Dulwich one day?