Welcome to the First Blokes club! What can Hugh O’Leary expect as the prime minister’s husband? | Liz Truss

Hugh O’Leary recently joined a club – and I’m not sure many of us would envy him. No, it wasn’t the “husbands of Liz Truss” club, but the First Guys club or – the New Zealand variant, which I prefer – the First Blokes club: that select but growing band of male partners of heads of government. In many ways, it is less onerous than being a female consort, since certain ancient social prejudices remain: a male partner is not expected to go everywhere with his spouse, at least not until he retires. If O’Leary is still married to a prime minister when he reaches retirement age (he is currently 48), I will eat my hat, your hat and all the hats.

The pair are said to live fairly separate lives – few in the party would even recognise O’Leary, outside the “Greenwich mafia”, their local Conservative scene. An unnamed source from Truss’s office said they had to give him access to her work diary, otherwise he would never know where she is or when she’s coming back.

Nor is a first bloke expected to look any particular way. He can be scruffy or smart, thin or fat, he can cut any which way, which suits most first blokes, except in the case of Markus Räikkönen, the husband of Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, whose Instagram feed is like a cry for help: “World! I know it is not fashionable to notice my appearance, but seriously, will you just look at me, I’m too handsome for venture capital, I’m too handsome for eco startups.”

First ladies, for all the unwanted scrutiny, judgment and idiot requests they get for biscuit recipes, are not just accepted but seen as necessary to the political landscape. But first men tend to slip into an uncomfortable space where all the bigotry that can’t be said out loud about the female leader (it mainly boils down to: ‘What’s she doing there, really? Surely this is unnatural”) is mediated instead through the subtle emasculation of her husband. If he isn’t a complete man, it follows that she isn’t a complete woman, and therefore the universe is at least partially back on its axis.

Vice-president Kamala Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.
Vice-president Kamala Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff. Photograph: Alex G Perez/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Kamala Harris, lawyer and visiting professor at Georgetown Law Center, is known as the first second gentleman, which in three words distills the novelty and aberrance of the role, and the archaic standards used to judge it. He’s the “first”, because the vice-president has never been a woman – it’s like he’s been awarded first prize in a race that should never have been run; he’s the “second” because she’s the second (to the president), but also he’s second to her, so he’s like second squared; and he’s her “gentleman” because she would have been his lady, had she not decided to be ambitious instead. History doesn’t relate whether or not this bugs him, partly because it’s much worse on Reddit threads – there, he’s the “biggest cuck in America right now”. Either way, he’s quite a serious character, who keeps his focus on more important things, such as social justice. This is one very useful route for a first guy, first modelled by quantum chemist and professor Joachim Sauer, the second husband of Angela Merkel. Dagmar Seeland, UK correspondent of the German magazine Stern, recalls: “Sauer managed this incredible feat of remaining in the background for 25 years, which was interesting given that he was such an eminent, famous scientist in his own right. It’s partly because people like that abhor publicity. They have complicated minds. They see the world in a much more complex way.”

O’Leary, who is a finance director at Affinity Global Real Estate, doesn’t have the “serious-minded, above the fray” option available to him – say what you like about global real estate, it’s definitely not above politics. But there are other ways for first guys to stay behind the scenes without losing their identity, including but not limited to: being rich (Philip May, Denis Thatcher, Sindre Finnes, husband of Norway’s erstwhile prime minister Erna Solberg) or being a lovable loafer (Denis again and Clarke Gayford, the fiance of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern).

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford. Photograph: David Rowland/EPA

You also need an origin story for the relationship. This is just bald-faced sexism, I’m afraid. A male leader doesn’t need a politically relevant meet-cute because it’s understood that he would have been reflexively scouting for action wherever he went. Male leaders actually often do meet their wives in a political context (Gordon Brown met Sarah on the way to a Scottish Labour conference; Norma met John Major in the 1970 GLC election campaign), but nobody goes on about it. Female leaders, by contrast, are tacitly expected to have met their spouse in a precinct that is both germane (how can she be a serious politician if she’s not always at the politics?) and makes her sound fun (how can she be trusted if she doesn’t have a human side?). In consequence, it always seems to come together somewhere like a Conservative party disco (the Mays) or a party-conference cocktail party (Truss and O’Leary), even though if you’ve ever been near such an event, you’ll know this to be impossible. They’re hell. They smell of hell.

Yet if you met through politics, it follows that you, the man, are also passionate, politically. The problem of relative ambition and success surfaces: the first guy has to slip effortlessly into the background, even if the fact that he wanted to become a politician in his own right is a matter of public record. O’Leary regularly stands for the local council in Greenwich, always loses horribly, keeps on canvassing. I think he’s just owning his own political failure, here, in a kind of crash-and-burn display: “I’m going to keep going for these very low-stakes roles in which I am more or less guaranteed failure, to indicate that I am not competing with my wife, since we all know who would win.” And that’s one way of doing it. It’s easier for Tory first guys to slip into the background because they just slide into finance and forge their fortunes there. It’s basically the same career with more money, per the old saying: Conservatives are always in power, they’re just only sometimes in office.

Katie Perrior, May’s director of communications, remembers Philip very warmly – “amazing temperament, lovely man” – and says that part of what sustained their relationship is that he never lost his passion for the party, despite having parked his own ambitions within it. “He’d be on the phone banks all night, out delivering leaflets. He didn’t invite cameras – it wasn’t for show. At one point, as a couple, it was decided that he’d fall behind Theresa, but he’s just as political and just as engaged in the Conservative party succeeding.”

Famously, Labour stalwart Margaret Beckett’s late husband, Leo, only pushed her to stand in Lincoln in the first place (in 1974) because he foresaw defeat in the constituency for Labour, and he wanted someone to keep the seat warm for when the party had better prospects, and he would become the candidate himself. It is pretty impressive how he came back from seeing his own ambitions completely thwarted to become a lifelong helpmeet to her sterling political career.

It shouldn’t be problematic for one member of a couple to be more successful than the other in a field that both find appealing. Yet society still abhors a more powerful woman, and enforces this through mass media. If it sounds archaic, it’s actually slightly worse. Prof Susan Doran, author of Monarchy and Matrimony: the Courtships of Elizabeth I, says: “I think the British are more gender sensitive now, so when we look at the past, we tend to interpret it through gender. In Elizabeth’s era, they had a theory of the king’s two bodies, which separated the body of the monarch from the political institution. The doublethink was that [had Elizabeth taken a spouse] as the monarch’s husband, he would be a subject, and therefore show deference, but in domestic affairs, she would be his wife and normal relations would be expected.” We’ve maybe lost a bit of that subtlety of mind.

PM Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis on holiday in Cornwall.
Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis on holiday in Cornwall. Photograph: PA/PA Archive/PA Photos

Perhaps more difficult, as a first bloke, is that female leaders, as well as being picked over for their appearance, are remorselessly sexualised, their character traits expressed through physical objectification, their weaknesses foregrounded as visible in the body. God help them if they actually are attractive, because then all their social behaviours turn into sexual provocations. François Mitterrand famously said of Thatcher that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”, which is batshit on its own terms – her mouth resembles Monroe’s only in so far as it is also a mouth – but it stuck because it put her in her place: she was no longer a tough negotiator but a cruel seductress. President Sarkozy went a different way with Chancellor Merkel – “She says she is on a diet and then helps herself to a second helping of cheese” – but the underlying impact is the same: strength recast as weakness via the diffuse but elemental shortcomings of the female form.

Unarguably, the Finnish PM, Marin, has it worse, with coordinated far-right leaks and witch-hunts, abetted by the mainstream tabloid media, to turn everything she does into a quasi-sexual transgression. She’s never photographed dancing, she’s always “grinding” or “dancing intimately with glamorous models”. There’s an expectation that the first guy will be unreactive, characterless, almost invisible – or failing that, slightly delinquent, in the Prince Philip mode: a child of – rather than a man in – the relationship. On the plus side, if a first bloke gets cheated on, it’s done and nobody ever mentions it again: Truss’s 2006 affair with the MP Mark Field was a huge problem for her with the Norfolk Tory Taliban, but never attached itself as a slight to O’Leary. This is a baffling double standard: if a first lady gets cheated on, it’s her fault for ever, either for failing to keep him or failing to dump him, or very often both.

Same-sex couples … well, Matthew Barrett isn’t technically a first bloke, since he hasn’t married Leo Varadkar, although the former taoiseach’s championing of the campaign for the right of gay couples to marry in Ireland makes the pair the patron saints of wedlock. In Luxembourg, the prime minister, Xavier Bettel, and his husband, Gauthier Destenay, never had this hyper-sexual yet prurient interest taken in them. “Nobody cared,” says one Luxemberger journalist, who did not wish to be named. “For a country so conservative, it was somehow surprising. My theory: for Benelux standards we were late to the party. Belgium and the Netherlands had had high-profile gay politicians before. Plus, Bettel conformed to traditional marriage values. And in a small country, people tend to let the private be private.”

Gayford, despite some ruthless but quite random takedowns in the New Zealand press (one journalist doesn’t like the “flourish of the ‘e’ in Clarke”), is the role model I’d choose, were I O’Leary. A bit of a himbo, maybe, who initially made his name on a reality TV show, he met Ardern through a constituency issue (the Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment bill – political meet-cute!). She got pregnant days before assuming office as PM in 2018, announcing the news: “I’ll be PM & a mum while Clarke will be ‘first man of fishing’ & stay at home dad.” They got engaged in 2019 but aren’t yet married, because of Covid. Even though he makes a perfectly legitimate living presenting a fishing programme, the fishing is always presented, including by him, as the ultimate hobby, which is a common way to neutralise any perceived threat from the first bloke.

Theresa May and husband Philip on the day she resigned in 2019.
Theresa May and husband Philip on the day she resigned in 2019. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

Possibly the most aggravating trope in this whole clam-bake is that, while any female consort is routinely presented as manipulating and conniving in petty ways, male partners are assumed to be much more influential svengali figures, their deciding influence over their spouse constantly intuited, all her decisions traced back to his personal interests. An example: May must have launched airstrikes against Syria to further Philip’s investment interests in BAE Systems. Would I prefer that no one had arms dealer interests anywhere near the mother of parliaments? Sure. But it seems improbable that she would be that bent. Margaret Thatcher, product of an earlier time, was so keenly aware of this risk that the popular caricature of Denis – lit up like the Commonwealth half the time, playing golf the other half – as popularised in Private Eye’s Dear Bill column, was deliberately devised by the Thatchers and Bill Deedes, one-time editor of the Telegraph, in order to defang him. And there is something about these pursuits – golf, fishing – that is deeply evocative of the slow-paced, solitary man, highly unlikely to be plotting anything.

O’Leary can take comfort from the fact that this prime ministership is in for a such a wild ride from external factors that, one, nobody will be combing over the first guy, and two, even if they do, it won’t be for very long. For as long as his term in not-office lasts, there is a medium-length line of role models who went before him –background, shadowy creatures who were probably nothing like as interested in golf as they made out to be.

This article was amended on 22 September 2022 to clarify that Liz Truss and other political leaders mentioned are heads of “government”, not of “state”. It was also amended on the same date to state that Leo Varadkar is the former taoiseach, not president of Ireland, and that he wasn’t in office in 2015 when the referendum to legalise gay marriage was passed.

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