DOr do you believe in Hugh O’Leary? I do, although at this point, after an entire leadership campaign in which Liz Truss’s rumored husband has gone unseen and barely mentioned, it’s understandable if some people have concluded he enjoys the same figment status as her de ella inborn Yorkshire values or hardship years in Leeds.
Or, if not actually mythical, maybe Mr O’Leary belongs to the category of things Truss has ideologically moved on from, like the Lib Dems, Republicanism or supporting Remain: a perfectly sane and reasonable option in the past, but not something that should now be allowed to interfere with her increasingly unhinged pronouncements.
It’s Mr O’Leary’s choice, and admirably progressive, if he prefers complete privacy; it offers him dignity and, more broadly, if his wife wins tomorrow and he remains invisible, the stronger possibility of a single woman one day becoming prime minister. Nobody would blame him if Carrie’s old title, Princess Nut Nut, were to die out for ever. But Mrs Johnson’s forced separation of her from her consort role of her, one she has performed, occasionally accessorized with a blond infant, with sporadic enthusiasm, will surely be challenging for traditionalists who like to see a visible and superficially compliant leader’s partner.
Can they rely on Mr O’Leary, presumed heir to Denis Thatcher and Philip May, for a similar commitment? While there’s no call for actual kissing, or pet airlifts, or Downing Street refurbs, or for O’Leary to develop an entire court, like Carrie’s, or try the sort of double-act – “Good evening, it’s Boris and Carrie here – that the Johnsons grossly attempted, there are still conventions. Or were until the current, strikingly spouse-free leadership election.
Just three years ago, the party’s 2019 candidates appeared happy to fulfill the expectation in UK politics, one generously fulfilled by the Camerons, that candidates satisfy the demand for the choreographed spousal testimony or glimpses of home life that is presumed – though without any obvious justification – to tell the public something valuable about leadership potential. In 2006, David Cameron had, for instance, challenged the Blairs’ family values with his all-new “WebCameron”, showing his adorable young family at breakfast and getting ready for school. “We’re a bit shaky and wobbly,” he said, “but this is one of the ways we want to communicate with people properly about what the Conservative party stands for.”
From memory (the footage has been removed) there was nothing in these or many other wholesome scenes to suggest that Cameron would later, for instance, call a fatal referendum, lose it then run away – or indeed become the greedy hireling of a disgraced Australian financial But when he was replaced these rituals would be re-enacted: during her bid for party leadership Theresa May told an interviewer about her and her husband’s disappointment at not having had children. Andrea Leadsom duly wrecked her own bid by advertising her imagined superiority of her in this respect – “being a mum means you have a real stake in the future of this country”.
Still, faith in domestic disclosure persisted. By midway through the previous Tory leadership competition, most of the candidates had produced a pleasing secret weapon (as the wives are conventionally understood) sometimes going so far, like the Raabs, to banter for the press in a kitchen. “It was an instant attraction,” Mrs Raab testified. “I thought he was very interesting, but he was also sweet and romantic. I remember he would create really nice dates for us.” We met the heroic Shoshana, Mrs Stewart, who took six weeks off work to run her husband’s bid. “It’s largely due to her that I’m still running in this race,” he said. Jeremy Hunt’s wife, Lucia, was advertised as a potential national asset, advancing Sino-British relations while she supported Mr Hunt, pet name “Big Rice”.
But, happily for Kabul’s endangered pets, Carrie Symonds would become the most conspicuously involved political spouse since Cherie Blair was a frustrated help meet, reminding officials of the great diplomatic talent going untapped. “I was starting to see,” Mrs Blair wrote, “how I could create a role that would be of real benefit.”
If it’s premature to interpret Mr O’Leary’s absence, to date, as a wholly creditable reluctance to combine a sideline in illegitimate interference with his (reported) job as an accountant, the sudden respect for politicians’ private spheres in the Tory-supporting press is potentially more significant. Even if the change is unlikely to be unattributable to some sudden aversion for heteronormative iconography in, say, the Mail‘s Paul Dacre, the partners of future leaders could nonetheless benefit from the concerted non-mentioning of O’Leary in his and like-minded newspapers. Likewise, from the awareness on Sunak-supporting side, that every indulgent mention of his wife’s shoe collection risks reminding people of her recent non-dom tax status of her.
That the Truss campaigners’ uncharacteristic indifference towards their candidate’s home life and its habits may largely have reflected tactfulness about a past affair (outed by the Mail), along with the non-heartwarming ideological distance between her and her father, does not mean this restraint won’t be useful, come the next election, to different or uncooperative spouses. Why, if the Truss-O’Learys don’t, should other politicians flash their perfect kitchens and ditto kids, or help further the impression that a candidate lies within normal parameters of personal acceptability (messiness/cooking/nappy-changing being favorite indicators )? Even Mrs Corbyn submitted: “He’s not very good at housework.”
Maybe a shortage of such testimonials partly explains Truss’s repeated recourse to regional caricature for substitute character references. As in, “I’m from Yorkshire” so “I’m plain-speaking”, “believe in value for money”, have got “grit, determination and straight-talking”. You don’t have to be born and raised in Leeds (which I was) to find this a disturbing understanding of both human personality and of the city that also produced Alan Bennett.
But that’s possibly because it’s typical of Oxfordshire where she was, in fact, born.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism