Andrew Billen - Tough at the top

Television - The rigours of political life ease if you can cash in afterwards, writes Andrew Billen

Watching these documentaries, I was reminded of Archie, the saddo played by Paul Whitehouse in The Fast Show, who would approach strangers in bars, ascertain their line of work and then claim to have been in it himself, man and boy. "Hardest job in the world," Archie would say. According to these rewarding programmes, full of insider insights, the only thing harder than being a prime minister's spouse is being leader of the Conservative Party. Michael Portillo, who nevertheless once coveted the latter job before finding his metier as a theatre critic, told Michael Cockerell on How To Be Tory Leader (3 December): "Being Tory leader in parliament without much hope of winning the next election is probably the most miserable job in global politics." Another Statesman columnist, Amanda Platell, who has not been Cherie Blair's kindest critic, admitted on Married to the Prime Minister (5 December) that she'd be looking for a new husband were she to wake up married to the PM.

With the death of Audrey Callaghan in March, there are now only four surviving prime ministerial spouses. Cherie Blair, the fourth, and co-author of the Channel 4 film, enterprisingly got the others on camera. It was, frankly, a surprise to find that Anthony Eden's widow was still with us, but only because I had forgotten that Clarissa was his child bride, marrying him just a few years before he became prime minister. Suez, she said, was "like a nightmare except it was real", and Cherie, who must have felt at times that the Tigris flowed directly through her sitting room, agreed that whatever mood prevails downstairs always permeates up to No 10's living quarters.

Mary Wilson, Harold's widow, spoke of the sheer loneliness of life in that unsplendid flat. "I lost a lot of friends and acquired a lot of people I didn't really want," she said believably. When things got too tough, she slipped out through the back gate and took a bus to a pal's place in West Finchley. There she ate smoked salmon sandwiches, drank a quarter-bottle of champagne and wept until she felt better. She told Cherie she hoped she had a bolt-hole. The nation worried that it might be the one shared with Carole Caplin.

Seeing Lady Wilson, now almost 90, a tiny, dignified, well-spoken woman, albeit one with a dubious taste in poetry, I was chastened at having enjoyed John Wells's spoof "Mrs Wilson's Diary" in Private Eye. His portrait of a cosy, HP Sauce-loving housewife was clearly wide of the mark, and Mary understandably resented the column, and Wells, at the time. Whether Denis Thatcher was similarly traduced in the "Dear Bill" letters was less clear, although the Bill in question, Deedes, pretended that the satire camouflaged his role as an eminence grise. As for Cherie, her press has been appalling - "big-hipped heffalump" was how one columnist described her - but its nature is different. While journalists projected their fantasies on to previous escorts, Cherie has her own public persona. The press thinks it knows her quite well. It just doesn't like her.

An exchange between Mary and Cherie demonstrated the difference. Mrs B said if anyone knew what the job of PM's wife actually was like, no one would do it. Lady W, horrified, said it was not done to admit such things. The point, however, is that the spouses of first ministers do not volunteer; they have, as it were, greatness thrust upon them. Becoming Tory leader, in contrast, is an act of will, if not overweening ambition. Nevertheless, according to Michael Cockerell, it remains a thankless job. Even if you fulfil its main requirement - becoming prime minister, in Lord Tebbit's succinct summary of the job description - you will face treachery and defeat. In Tebbit's view, the knifing of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 "crossed a threshold of behaviour", and leadercide became a Tory habit.

With such a fate looming, your own principles are likely to be another sacrifice you make, on the basis either they go or you do. Typically, it was explained, a Tory leader is selected because they are popular with the party's right. They then realise the need to run for the middle ground. When this doesn't work, they lurch rightward again, because the polls show that it is only on the right's agenda - Europe, crime and race - that they lead Labour. As William Hague, in the most candid mood I have ever heard him, said: "You want someone to vote for you."

Cockerell's film trod more familiar ground than Cherie Blair's but, as usual with him, it was amply and wittily illustrated from the archives. Michael Howard, for instance, was shown lurking miserably in a corridor while Tina Turner sang: "One can stand alone in the dark." Then, as we cut to shots of him dancing stiffly with his wife, Turner trilled on: "Two can make the light shine through." However, like Cherie and her producer Cate Haste (since we are talking spouses, I'll mention that she is also Lady Bragg), Cockerell omitted to mention the plus side of these jobs. Once they are over, you can make a pack of money. Heath did; Hague has. In her trailblazing way, Cherie Blair has even found a way to generate spondulicks while still living above the shop. And, remember, a heffalump never forgets - as many will surely discover to their cost, and her profit, when Mrs Blair's Diaries are eventually published.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We achieved next to nothing