Kathy Sheridan: Have we have reached peak political spouse?

From Karen Pence to Philip May, the relevance of political partners is at a low

US vice-president Mike Pence and his wife Karen  arrive  in Seoul, South Korea last month: Her prominent role raised questions. Photgraph: Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images

US vice-president Mike Pence and his wife Karen arrive in Seoul, South Korea last month: Her prominent role raised questions. Photgraph: Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images

 

No one thought it odd that Karen Pence accompanied her husband, Mike, the US vice-president, on his 10-day trip to Asia. Nor that they took the kids along. It was when Karen stolidly positioned herself beside her husband by the lectern, in South Korea, while he delivered a speech about escalating tensions in the region, that the optics turned weird.

What precisely was her function at that point? To provide a visual, womany softener of the great orator’s stern words? To issue instant rebukes to any brave hecklers?

On his official trip to Europe, the pair held hands while touring a concentration camp and huddled together on Air Force Two to debrief. When he went for off-the-record chats with media in the back of the plane, Karen went along too, bearing a silver tray of cookies and standing beside him for the 20-minute discussion.

This column has no problem with Mike Pence’s now famous pledge to dine alone with no woman other than his wife – how couples choose to protect their relationship is their business – but this inter-weaving of high stakes, foreign policy brinkmanship with hand-holding, limpet-like domestic partners has gone far enough.

First daughter

Back at the White House, there is the opposite problem. Ivanka Trump, her father’s de facto first lady, recently joined a panel on women entrepreneurs in Berlin at the invitation of Angela Merkel, where the moderator asked: “What is your role, and who are you representing, your father as president of the United States, the American people, or your business?”

Fionnuala Kenny has survived perfectly well being her own irreverent woman and the opposite of the hand-holding limpet

Ivanka replied she wasn’t there for her company, but the question neatly encapsulated a situation rife with potential conflicts of interest.

Last month, she was placed next to Chinese president Xi Jinping at an official dinner in her father’s Mar-a-Lago resort on the very same day that China gave provisional approval to her intellectual-property company for three new trademarks, giving her the exclusive right to sell accessories and clothes under the Ivanka Trump name to 1.4 billion people.

Meanwhile in France, which has never had an official first lady, Emmanuel Macron told supporters last month that if elected, he planned to appoint his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, to an official role.

Can any of this be called progress?

Marine le Pen’s lawyer partner said if she was elected, he had no intention of stepping up to the “first lady” plate, in any shape or form.

“The French elect a man or a woman and not a couple,” he said. He may be right in this if nothing else.

‘Wife card’

Some will argue that since the role of first lady has been dignified by superstars such as Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama that this somehow justifies its existence. But the “wife card” has become wearisome. Michelle’s “humanising” interviews about Barack’s smelly socks and early morning halitosis scored zero for presidential dignity.

Sarah Brown’s speech about Gordon, to the 2009 Labour party conference, calling the then prime minister, “my husband, my hero”, was not just memorably toe-curling; it failed to move the polls and he lost the election seven months later.

Would Enda Kenny have ascended the ranks without his wife? Probably not. Yet Fionnuala Kenny, in every respect the Taoiseach’s wise counsel, has survived perfectly well being her own irreverent woman and the opposite of the hand-holding limpet.

In the lead up to the Fine Gael leadership battle, despite heavy, barbed suggestions to the contrary, there is zero evidence that voters are influenced by the hand-holding displays. Bertie Ahern’s unconventional domestic arrangements never impeded his progress.

Pussy-grabbing Donald Trump, running for a conservative, family-values party while on his third marriage, was not impeded either. Though his official first lady continues to live in Trump Tower, New York, with their son, an arrangement reckoned to cost the taxpayer about $200,000 a day for security alone, he can smirk about campaign 2020 as a done deal.

Merkel precedent

Female leaders have rarely had the luxury of a slobbering, spousal prop. Angela Merkel has managed quite adequately without having her husband, Joachim Sauer, available to wave around like a fragrance.

Philip May appears occasionally by Theresa’s side, without the woeful faff over outfits or hair

Back in 2005, while Merkel was campaigning for chancellor, one magazine interviewer noted, purse-lipped, that Joachim “will on no account recognise that husbands and wives nowadays play a central role in every campaign strategy”. And he has held his ground.

Philip May appears occasionally by Theresa’s side, without the woeful faff over outfits or hair of course. A financier credited as a key political confidante to his wife, he has agreed to give his first ever broadcast interview, with the pair appearing on BBC1’s The One Show.

We know why she wanted to do it. Viewers will thrill to her grandmother’s “thrifty” scone recipe again and the news that they fell in love over their shared love of cricket among other things, to show what makes her “tick” is not a chip in her brain.

The mystery is why he agreed to do it.

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