As the daughter and wife of MPs, Sasha Swire had to stay quiet and keep smiling – until she published her bombshell journal
Appendage. Noun. 1. a thing that is added or attached to something larger or more important.
That’s me! The appendage, my whole lovely life: daughter of an MP (Sir John Knott, MP for St Ives, 1966-83, and Defence Secretary); wife of one (Sir Hugo Swire, MP for East Devon, 2001-19, and Foreign Office Minister).
And actually, as it happens, I was also researcher for one – also Hugo Swire. This caused problems because most people thought my snout was heavily into the taxpayer’s trough, but that’s a whole other political story.
As a doe-eyed young girl growing up in a Cornish constituency, I was dragged round the cheese-and-wine circuit; staring up between my parents’ legs, like a puppy panting at the promise of a treat. My limbs have literally been built on creamy chicken vol-au-vents and pineapple chunks topped with glacier cherries on cocktail sticks.
All that was expected of me as a daughter – and later a wife – was a perfect row of gnashers attached to a courtly smile, and gracious pauses to allow the man space to present his views; and then, with great tranquillity, to say to him, ‘That’s so clever of you. I would never have thought of that myself!’
Smiling is key – my mother taught me that. She’s always smiling, which is quite tiring when you are of a naturally gloomy disposition as I am. I think the Duchess of Cambridge must have scaffolding in her mouth.
At dinners full of the great and the good, I educated myself to sit silently when what I wanted to say was ‘Coooeee, over here! I know about that! Ask me.’
When I did break out of my holding pen to share my views, all I could hear afterwards was that deafening silence that comes immediately after the male brain adapts to a different sort of noise.
Mind you, the women were just as bad. I remember sitting next to Penny Mordaunt, now the Paymaster General, at some dinner and she didn’t address a single word to me. Not one.
Once, Amber Rudd introduced me to Liz Truss who just stared at me like DCS Patricia Carmichael in Line of Duty, all serene and smirking, as if I had single-handedly betrayed the entire sisterhood with my ‘wife of’ status. She’s quite pleased with herself, that Liz Truss.
I was forever reminded of my utter irrelevance. After the Home Office came to secure one of our properties, my husband told me that on no account was I to press the red panic buttons if a rabid, terrorist psychonut came through my bedroom door. The buttons were for the exclusive use of the primary target – him!
Merely marrying an MP doesn’t assure success, but skills do. Ballroom dancing is one of them: the one where the man steps forward with left foot; the lady steps back with right foot. You learn how to dip your perfectly manicured hand into a hat and pull out a ticket: ‘Blue 209 … red 304… Oh, Sheila, not you again?’
This is more difficult than you might think on a diplomatic level, when it’s Sheila’s fourth win in a row.
Manicured hands aren’t great for leafleting. I could do an exam in letter boxes: the vertical ones; draught-excluders – the brushy kind; small letter boxes in which you play origami with your leaflets; external letter boxes – we like those; porch without a letter box leading to a door with a letter box which you can’t gain access to; floor-level letter boxes, where the snarling dog directly behind wants to bite off your right hand.
Then there’s learning how to sit beside your husband on a platform as he becomes increasingly Churchillian, having hoofed down quite a lot of Aldi house red beforehand. You listen to him drone on and on and on, until you’re slicing your hand across your neck, signifying, ‘Shut the **** up and let’s go home.’
After a round of applause and his ‘That went well’ expression, you rise elegantly to receive gracefully a bunch of faded chrysanthemums bought from the local garage forecourt. You think, ‘What are these actually for? I haven’t done anything except sit demurely, as asked. Oh, OK – that’s what they are for.’
It’s important to know how to handle a dodgy donor at a lavish black-tie fundraising ball, when his only interest is in looking over his shoulder to target whoever can help him cross-dress in ermine and be placed into the next dumper truck of peers heading for the Lords.
My Slovenian mother spent her childhood eyeing up Russia on one side and Nazis on the other. She advised that revenge is best served soft with a smile, Slav-style. I ignored this completely. I yielded to the absolutely irresistible urge to behave completely contrary to what was expected of me. I picked up a pen, wrote a diary and published it! Naughty, naughty me.
Sasha Swire is the author or Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power