Cherie’s a perfectly good crony

Cherie Blair is in big trouble. The Prime Minister’s wife has chaired a series of supposedly important seminars in Downing Street, thereby bringing the wrath of the British press down upon her head.
“Ours is a parliamentary system,” thundered The Daily Telegraph, “in which policy is made by the Cabinet. The spouse of the Prime Minister has no business whatever getting involved in that process.”
The Daily Mail agreed, huffing that her participation “is an affront to the British constitution”. Just about everyone else has been waving their arms about in the air, shouting about cronyism, the undue influence of an unelected person, threats to democracy and so on.
All well and good – but speaking as the wife of another politician, in another country, I have a different reaction. My reaction is: so what? On the other hand, I would never do it. Recently, when a glossy magazine asked me if I ever gave advice to my husband, I replied that I did: sometimes I help him decide which tie to wear in the morning.
Other than that, I don’t chair meetings, don’t do policy, wouldn’t want to and can’t think why Cherie wants to either. Besides which, if she’s really such an important QC, how does she have the time? Most busy people are too busy to interfere in the professional lives of their spouses.
Nevertheless, while I agree that Cherie’s participation in Downing Street meetings does indicate a more profound lapse of good taste and political tact than the Blairs have hitherto exhibited – have they forgotten what happened to the Clintons? – I can’t see that it is a constitutional crisis either.
Put bluntly, it is sheer nonsense to pretend that only elected politicians have the right to influence policy debate. There are, and always have been, plenty of people in public life who have influence over public policy, yet who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, stand for election. Sometimes, such people have a formal role: think of the House of Lords, the chairmen of myriad quangos and Royal Commissions, the various press secretaries and political advisers.
Sometimes, such people don’t have a formal role. Jeffrey Archer played the role of “crony” to Tory governments over many years, having only briefly served as an MP. At various points in time he held various titles, but his real function was to give lavish parties at Tory party conferences and to invite lots of people to lunch in his penthouse apartment, thereby spreading Conservative goodwill. Although no one says so now, he was also jolly good at it, as everyone at the time heartily agreed.
Nor would we want to do without politicians’ cronies either. Imagine a world in which every political actor had to be elected: Westminster and Whitehall would be full of the sort of over-ambitious, over-gregarious, hyper-competitive person who likes standing for elections. There would be no brilliant yet socially inept policy wonks, no clever but unattractive media strategists – and no one, of course, with any dangerous skeletons in their personal cupboard at all. Just think what talent might be lost to the nation.
On the other hand – remember Lord Archer’s sticky end – just think what politicians risk when they use their cronies. Maybe Mr Blair knows that he’s better off having his wife chair Downing Street transport policy meetings. At least she appears to be financially sound, competent and honest – which may be more than can be said about Tony’s other cronies, some of whose names we’ll never know.