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Times Column

Times 2 - Friday 14th November 2008

After a gruelling campaign, Michelle Obama says she has already developed a thick skin. She will need it.

You have to take your hat off to Michelle Obama. Like everyone else, I have watched how brilliantly she has handled herself in the media spotlight in the last few months and days. By the time of last week’s election, she had won over all but the most partisan of critics.

Her article in the Times showed how valuable her role had been in winning support for her husband. It also revealed her priority for the next four years. She is absolutely right to make her family central to all she will do. It’s not only the most important role of any parent. It is also the best way of keeping her husband grounded and in touch with real life.

But I know that there are hard adjustments ahead. For a start when your spouse is elected the leader of a country, the dynamic of your relationship is bound to change - even when the partnership has been one of equals as has certainly been the case in the Obama marriage.

You have to learn to take a backseat not just in public but in private. When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed or for dinner or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept he had something more important to do. Not always easy when it happens several times in quick succession, and I can’t say I always bore this with equanimity.

You have to try as well, where you can, to share the burden without interfering. You can’t confuse being a sounding board with having influence over decisions. You always have to remember it is not you who was elected.

The power behind the throne is a line of attack political opponents are only too keen to deploy, as Hillary Clinton discovered. As a lawyer myself, I quickly found myself being compared to Hillary by sections of the media. There were suggestions that if Tony got to No 10, I would be pulling the strings and trying to move policy further to the left.

These fears turned out to be far from the truth. When Tony returned to the No 10 flat after a long day immersed in the detail of government policy, the last thing he needed was a further round of political discussion with me. He wanted to leave the job behind and relax, to spend time with the children and to talk with me about anything else than politics.

Before the election, however, the Labour party’s response, which I entirely understood, was to ensure the attacks couldn’t stick. So I had the slightly surreal experience for a QC of finding myself talking to women’s magazines about knitting and my favourite recipes. They are interests I genuinely have but not ones I had ever thought I would share with a wider audience.

Early in the campaign, Michelle Obama, yet another lawyer, found herself shoe-horned into the same damaging stereotype. There was an attempt in some sections of the US media to portray her as another Hillary, angrier and more divisive than her husband. She even suffered the indignity of being labelled the “American Cherie” by the Daily Mail - about as bad an insult as they can throw.

She responded with intelligence and grace, softening her image and, in turn, helping to soften her husband’s. She proved herself an accomplished performer on chat-shows, poking gentle fun at her husband which helped him connect with the public. She has proved - like Sarah Brown over here - a tremendous asset on the campaign trail.

Michelle Obama shows signs in her column of realising where the boundaries much be drawn. But it is something of an irony that in these days of pushing for equality, those married to our political leaders have to put their own ambitions on hold while their spouse is in office, and keep their views to themselves, sometimes, as in my case, even at home.

I, at least, had my career. That’s not an option for Michelle Obama. Now they are moving to Washington, any return to her high-flying job in Chicago would be impossible. But as Hillary once explained to me, it would be very difficult for any spouse of a President to continue working.

There is, of course, a big difference between being the wife of a Prime Minister and the much more formal duties of a First Lady. Despite what American organisers of events think, the Prime Minister’s consort is not a First anything. If anyone fills this important role here, it is the Duke of Edinburgh as he is the spouse of the Head of State.

So it was much easier for me to continue with my career. Having continued working full-time with three young children, it never entered my head in 1997 to give up work. It wasn’t, however, always plain sailing. Once, when I was sitting as a part-time judge, one defendant announced to the court that she had voted for my husband. When I still found against her, she snorted that he shouldn’t rely on her vote again.

After 21 gruelling months on the campaign trail, Michelle Obama is realistic about what lies ahead. She understands that criticism comes with the job and says she has already developed a thick skin. She will need it.

When I asked Hillary for advice not long after the 1997 election, she warned me that there would always be sections of the public or press who would be keen to criticise. That, as we know, certainly proved to be the case though I didn’t always make life easy for myself. So far Michelle Obama seems to be avoiding the traps. But as in many things in life there is a sacrifice, if willingly made, which shouldn’t be underestimated.