THE banqueting hall of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh is awash with outgoing and colourful women. The chatter is almost deafening as they take their seats for a special lunch to raise money for a women's health charity.
Amid this chaotic scene, the smartly dressed figure of Sarah Brown slips discreetly into the room and takes the prime seat at the top table. She's dressed entirely in black apart from a gold and pearl-coloured necklace; few notice her entrance.
But for many the chance of hearing the Prime Minister's wife speak is a major draw. "She's a bit of an enigma," one guest says. "I wonder if she'll talk about her husband or children."
Mrs Brown undoubtedly realises the expectation of the 170 women (and one or two men) who paid 48 a head to attend the Well Being of Women (WOW) Purple Lunch, in support of medical research and training in reproductive health.
She does not disappoint. But, at the same time, Gordon has nothing to worry about – no great family or Government secrets are divulged. There is just enough to amuse the "ladies who lunch" and offer a small glimpse into the life of this mysterious woman.
Brown reveals that she has worked informally for the charity for some time, supporting its fundraising efforts.
"I always said I would step up my role if I was to take on a more high-profile life. That time came last June with the move to Number 10 and the charity was very quickly on the phone," she says, causing laughter among the many WOW supporters in the hall.
There is more humour as Brown, a mother of two, describes her husband's rise to be leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister: "My eldest boy went back to nursery and announced to his teacher that his dad had become leader of the Lady Party."
Many of the high-flying women in the hall nod in sympathy as she describes her busy life as the PM's wife: "We were in Number 11 for ten years, so you would think the short walk across would be fairly easy. But life is quite hectic. There is a kind of pace to it where things happen every day. At the end of this lunch I literally have to walk out of the door, catch a plane down to London, turn around and fly to the United States. It is that kind of pace."
Brown also gives an insight into what it is like to have the rich and famous turn up at your front door. She says many people had asked her about Carla Sarkozy, the former supermodel and wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy: "The truth is she is what you would expect. She is as beautiful as she looks, is charming and incredibly nice."
She reveals, however, that "the bright shining star of Carla Sarkozy" was eclipsed by last week's guest – George Clooney. "These people don't let you down," she says, to flirtatious laughter from the hall. "Sometimes you can meet people and they do not live up to expectations. But he is all that he would appear to be. He is a kind of big superstar with an enormously impressive commitment to the problems in Darfur."
There is no doubt Brown is also truly committed to the causes she supports, including WOW, of which she is patron. Liz Campbell, WOW's director, says: "She's not just a patron who turns up in a big hat and smiles." Campbell also acknowledges the allure of hearing Brown speak: "She does not talk very much in public. When she does she always has something worth saying."
It is true that her public appearances tend to be short and muted. There's no high-profile speeches, no fashion watch, and no answering the door to Number 10 in her nightie. In fact, we know little about her, and considering her background in PR, it's likely that's how she's planned it.
It's not easy being married to the most powerful person in the country. "Nothing," according to Cherie Blair, "prepares you for the reality of what awaits you behind that famous front door." Norma Major said it made her occasionally want to "walk into a lift and scream". Mary Wilson joked that perhaps they could get a dummy, put a pretty hat on it, stick a bunch of flowers in its hands and use it instead of her. And Denis Thatcher suggested that the ideal prime ministerial spouse be "always present, never there".
Brown is clearly taking the advice of the Iron Lady's late husband to heart. She doesn't give interviews, her dress sense is smart yet simple and she has chosen to give up her career for the time being to focus on raising her children. However, with her background in PR, and considering the reception that her predecessor developed, it's unlikely that this is all simply a personal decision. Like the Queen Mother and Kate Moss, she recognises the value of discretion, and appears to have made a decision to rise above it all and decline to comment. She has successfully created a role as a demure and relatively passive charity-circuit wife and mother, content to care for her children and her husband, and watching on proudly as he succeeds, and yet we forget that not long ago she was running one of Britain's most powerful PR agencies.
"I've no doubt that Sarah Brown's marked quietness is carefully thought through," says Francis Beckett, the author of Gordon Brown: Past, Present and Future. "She has experience working for a powerful and sophisticated PR firm, one that I believe were better than the PRs who surrounded Blair. "At the beginning of her relationship with Gordon, his PR advisor set up a series of pictures of the couple in a restaurant together and I don't think Brown liked that style of PR, since that was the last time such an obvious PR stunt was used to project an image of their relationship. Since then, I believe that he's been taking his advice from Sarah, and this quietness from her is working, in that she's not a distraction from her husband's work. It may be in part an antidote to the Cherie approach."
Born in 1963 to a Scottish father who worked in publishing and a mother who was a teacher, Sarah Macauley spent much of her early childhood in Tanzania, before moving to London to live with her mother when her parents separated.
After attending Acland Burghley comprehensive school in Tufnell Park and Camden High School for Girls, she gained a 2:1 in psychology from Bristol University.
After graduating, she set up the public relations company, Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications – once ranked among the UK's top 50 PR firms – with schoolfriend Julia Hobsbawm, through which she met her future husband while organising Labour events.
While he appeared to some unlikely to settle down (despite John Prescott saying on stage at Labour's annual conference in 1998: "Gordon, forget prudence and name a date for Sarah. She's a lovely lass") the couple began seeing each other, while keeping their relationship as private as possible, and in the early years of their relationship, Sarah was credited with smartening up Mr Brown's notoriously dowdy image.
They married in Fife in 2000, with Sarah taking her husband's name, and she left Hobsbawm Macaulay the following year, after discovering that she was pregnant with their first child. Their daughter, Jennifer Jane, was born in December 2001 but died ten days later. In October 2003 she gave birth to a boy, John, and then in July 2006 she had a second boy, James Fraser, who was later diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. In their daughter's memory Mrs Brown founded a charity, PiggyBankKids, which helps disadvantaged children. Her charity work remains the most public element of her life, and it's likely that this is very carefully controlled.
"PiggyBankKids is run out of the offices of Brunswick, a rather secretive London PR firm, which Sarah Brown used to work for. It seems a little unusual to me that a charity should be run out of the offices of a PR firm, and I think it shows just how important image and public relations remains to Sarah Brown," says David Miller, the author of A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the cutting Edge of Corporate Power and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Strathclyde.
Gordon Brown regards his private life as irrelevant to politics, and his wife feels the same way, working hard to keep her family life private. She has referred to "the triviality" of the fuss made over personal elements of their relationship such as the time it was reported that she was buying pink ties to soften her husband's image. However, with experience in public relations, one would imagine she's aware that when it comes to politics, nothing, not even a pink tie, is trivial.
Her own appearance doesn't threaten to detract from her husband and appears to reflect her desire to stay out of the limelight. There's none of Cherie's bold but garish ensembles, nor head-to-toe Dior la Carla Bruni. There's nothing to say about her clothes, and that's how she prefers it. "She's just not vain," her friend, the broadcaster and columnist, Mariella Frostrup, has said of Brown. "She has a real solidness about her: her priorities seem to be in the right place."
"Sarah Brown's dress sense is quiet and safe. If someone's going to print something about her, she doesn't want it to be about her wardrobe and she achieves that with a very simple selection of clothes," says Glasgow-based image consultant Janice Pitman, who advises professional women on their wardrobes. "She's dressing in a way that she feels a Prime Minister's wife should dress, and while she's not going to be celebrated for her fashion sense, it's so safe that no-one will condemn her for it either."
They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and, in this case, one who is highly intelligent, motivated and experienced. So, despite the very traditional spousal role that she has adopted, could she play a bigger part in her husband's career than the supportive housewife? "Given her talent and experience working in PR, I think it's very likely that Sarah Brown has a role in shaping her husband's public image," says Lorraine Davidson, former Director of Communications at the Scottish Labour Party.
"She's an exceptionally good networker, and having observed her at events, she's very good at making sure that her husband's speaking to all the right people. In that sense, she's never off duty."
THE LABOUR LADIES OF NUMBER 10
SARAH BROWN couldn't be more different from her predecessor, Cherie Blair. In the months since her husband became the Prime Minister, Mrs Brown has maintained a dignified silence, declined interviews and gone about her daily life in a very normal fashion. The notable absence of public gaffes and PR disaster has naturally drawn comparisons with Mrs Blair. So, how do the two women differ in their approach to the role as Britain's first lady? Below we examine the evidence.
THIS is not a woman who harbours a desire to appear on any best-dressed lists like Carla Bruni or Jackie Kennedy, but she doesn't wish to embarrass her husband. She doesn't use a stylist, but manages always to appear simple and understated – if slightly dowdy.
LIKE her predecessor, Brown enjoyed a high-flying career but, unlike Cherie, she chose to give it up to raise her family. Many believe this was a wise move as PR could have clashed with being the PM's wife, if clients chose to work with her in the hope of winning government favour.
BROWN is uncomfortable with the press, particularly after a remark she made about her cat, Felix. Newspapers devoted pages to him and it made her aware that no remark is too small to be highlighted. At one drinks party it was noted that she excused herself from talking with journalists to supervise her son.
BROWN has worked hard to create a quiet, private life for her children but, ironically, her children are perhaps the element of her life that have received the most attention from the press, after the death of their first child and the news that their son, Fraser, has cystic fibrosis.
SO FAR, Sarah Brown's slate is squeaky clean. She must have observed how Cherie's various public gaffes drew attention away from her husband and, with her very private image, it seems, on the evidence so far, highly unlikely that she will make similar mistakes.
GARISH and gaudy probably best sums up Cherie Blair's approach to dressing. Perhaps she wouldn't have come in for so much criticism had she not hired stylist Carole Caplin to help with her image, or spent a reported 7,700 on a hairdresser during the 2005 election.
BLAIR chose not to give up her career when her husband came to power. She became a barrister in 1976 and a Queen's Counsel in 1995. Specialising in employment, discrimination and public law, she has on occasion represented claimants taking cases against the government.
BLAIR made no secret of her dislike for the press. When she left Downing Street for the final time, she told the gathered media, "I don't think we'll miss you." She recently launched libel proceedings against the News of the World after its claim she was involved in a "secret feud" with Sarah Brown.
THE Blairs have four children, Euan, Nicky, Kathryn and Leo, who have mostly managed to elude the public's gaze, except in 2000 when, aged 16, Euan Blair hit the headlines when he was found drunk by police after partying to celebrate the completion of his GCSEs.
WHERE to start? From reports that she had sent the Downing Street cat Humphrey to "meet his maker" to her involvement with self-confessed conman Peter Foster, who assisted her in the purchase of two flats, Cherie hit the headlines almost as often as her husband.