Despite the nightmares of tabloid honey-traps, politicians' marriages are just as stable as others'

The groans and moans are raising the Pugin roof at Westminster. You can hear sighs and whispers and even the odd cry. But this isn't another case of canoodling MP and researcher overheard consummating their passion; it isn't two Members going at it hammer and tongs in between sittings. No, this is a session of the Spouse in the House Club, a new Labour support group that caters for those lumbered with partners in parliament. Members come to complain and comfort one another about the terrible fate of being an MP's other (often better) half.

Robin Cook, Jane Kennedy, Helen Brinton, Janet Anderson, Jeremy Corbyn . . . two years after the election, the marital corpses are beginning to pile up in the Commons. Not great for that family-friendly image the party is so keen to push. Hence the new club, which is offering members "a tasty three-course meal including wine", a live cabaret and, above all, the opportunity to "share", AA-style, in the pain of being a parliamentary spouse.

"Hello, my name is Margaret, and I've been married to a politician for 28 years. I've had it with the long hours that keep us apart and the stingy salary that can't keep me in the style I'd like to grow accustomed to. As for those scheming secretaries who can't keep their grubby paws off my man . . ."

In terms of marriage-rescuing operations, this is not bad. Far better, and more in tune with our self-help culture, than those family photo ops beloved of Tory politicos, where the long-suffering wife gritted her teeth and wore a brave face while all around her headlines rolled with bedroom exploits featuring toe-suckers and Chelsea football shirts. Those were the days when being a Spouse of the House meant you put up and shut up - you hid the pain behind a stiff upper lip and the willow- patterned cup of the Conservative Ladies' Coffee Mornings. No blubbing on someone else's shoulder, no hanging out the dirty linen in a roomful of fellow sufferers. Those were also the days when the Spouse was more likely to be a wife than a hubby (and certainly not a "partner").

With Labour in power and a bevy of Blair's babes swelling the ranks, the long-suffering matron of old has been replaced by the impatient and probably professional partner snorting, "I've got a life, too!" These are people brought up on talk of empowerment and stakeholding, who believe things can only get better if a support group addresses the problem. "You are not alone" is for them both campaign motto and reassurance. It's also true: with one in three marriages breaking down in this country, politicians have plenty of company in the divorce courts. Indeed if you compare the statistics, MPs lag behind entertainers, footballers and media folk in the marriage bust-up stakes - though as far as I know, there is no group to support the likes of Jerry Hall, Sheryl Gascoigne or Dawn French. (Imagine the group sessions that would follow "Hello, my name is Sheryl . . .")

Yes, fawning researchers and arduous hours are terrible trials besetting our politicians. But despite the nightmare visions of tabloid honey-traps and Antonia de Sanchas troubling the slumber of parliamentary partners, politicians' marriages are no more divorce-prone than other people's. Theirs are simply held up before the rest of us in a way no one else's are. A Blair divorce would send greater shock waves through the nation than Di's and Charles's did; the fallout from the Cooks' divorce obsessed the media for far longer than the Hoddles'. Voters may have pulled the politicians from their pedestal but they still want their marriages to be sacred.

Westminster's new club should buck this trend and cast off the pressure to provide a picture of domestic respectability. Instead of moaning and groaning, members should boldly proclaim: "Role models we're not". And when MPs are asked how their marriages fare under the pressures of the job, they should answer: "If you want to stay married, don't go into politics. Or films. Or football."

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo