George Kerevan: Mistresses’ influence on politics

A woman reads a page of an Italian newspaper the day after a press conference held by French president Francois Hollande. Picture: Getty
A woman reads a page of an Italian newspaper the day after a press conference held by French president Francois Hollande. Picture: Getty
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The role of the mistress is as old as that of the politician and won’t be consigned to history with François Hollande either, writes George Kerevan

BACK in 1990, when I was on Edinburgh Council, we had an official visit from the then Italian foreign minister, the suave and rather clever Gianni di Michelis. Mr di Michelis later proved too clever by half and did time for corruption. His visit was memorable because he brought with him his mistress, a rather pouty and bored young thing. Edinburgh’s municipal protocol staff are well versed in dealing with royalty, but coping with this highly visible “official mistress” taxed even their patience. As I remember, the situation was saved when one of the younger councillors took her and di Michelis out to the capital’s then-trendy nightspot, Buster Browns.

France’s President Hollande is not the first politician – nor will he be the last – to run into trouble over that most ubiquitous of accoutrements that go with high office – the mistress. Arthur Wellesley, the Iron Duke of Wellington and sometime Tory prime minister, responded to the inevitable press exposure with the famous phrase “publish and be damned”, after his ex-mistress Harriette Dubouchet wrote a kiss and tell memoir about her former lovers. She did, and it’s still in print.

Does having a mistress get in the way of running the country? President Jack Kennedy said that unless he had sex every day, he got a headache. And he didn’t mean with Mrs Kennedy. Jack the Lad was philandering even during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis that almost got us all nuked. If Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, it is likely his affairs – with mafioso girlfriends, East German communists, and vulnerable young staffers – would have brought his administration into ridicule. Just as the exposure of John Profumo’s ill-judged liaison with Christine Keeler effectively destroyed Harold Macmillan’s government.

Do mistresses have political influence? The answer is a resounding yes, perhaps because politicians need someone they can trust as much as bed. Top of the list is Frances Stevenson, long-time mistress of David “The Goat” Lloyd George. Stevenson was also Lloyd George’s private secretary (the first of such to work inside 10 Downing Street), accompanying him to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Lloyd George eventually married Stevenson after his wife Margaret died. But Stevenson was not immune to the tragic compromises that political mistresses make: Lloyd George forced her to undergo several abortions to keep the affair secret.

Perhaps the most influential mistress was Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson’s political secretary and, in the 1960s, one of the most famous women in Britain. Very probably, Wilson and Williams had a brief affair early on, but the relationship quickly moved on to her becoming Wilson’s political “wife” while the actual incumbent, Mary, wrote poetry. Williams was a harridan who jealously guarded access to Wilson and acted as if she were Deputy PM.

While at Downing Street, Williams also had two children by another covert lover, Walter Terry, who (conveniently) was political editor of the Daily Mail. A generation later, history repeated itself when Tony Blair’s Downing Street “gate keeper” Anji Hunter, had a secret affair with Adam Boulton of Sky News. The media knew about the trysts between their own and Number 10, even if the respective spouses did not. Such press complicity might explain why the bedroom antics of politicians are often more secret than you think.

As a rule, mistresses of British politicians have been treated viciously by the Establishment when they caused embarrassment. A case in point is Caroline Norton, mistress of Lord Melbourne, a Whig prime minister in the 1830s for whom the phrase “mad, bad and dangerous to know” was coined (by his wife). Melbourne’s rivals “outed” the relationship and Norton’s husband sued the Prime Minister for having “criminal conversations” with his wife. As in the Monica Lewinski affair, evidence was presented of “stains” on Caroline’s dresses. Melbourne’s lawyers won by traducing Caroline’s reputation – no 19th-century jury would doubt the word of the PM. Norton’s husband then dumped her and took the children. But feisty Caroline successfully campaigned for the Infant Custody Act of 1839 that gave separated wives automatic custody of children – the first feminist legislation.

There is nothing new about senior politicians having mistresses or the media publishing the juicy details. So it is unclear why, since the 1960s, most British prime ministers and US presidents have been squeaky clean on the mistress front, at least when in high office – John Major bedded Edwina Curry when he was only a whip (no pun). It might be that as the process of government becomes more about micromanaging bin collections rather than fighting world wars, politics attracts less flamboyant individuals and risk-takers. It might be that the 24/7 news cycle leaves no room for even a “quickie” – though most of JFK’s bed partners report that is all they got. Or it might be that we live in times when partnerships are more equal and relationships more genuinely caring. I hope so.

On the other hand, power remains the key to the bedroom. Politics, remember, is showbiz for ugly people. My French friends think the British obsession with the private lives of politicians is prurient and trivial. But that has not stopped them confiding they don’t understand how François Hollande attracts beautiful women when (in the words of one Parisian female friend) “he looks like a frog”. The answer is simple: power attracts, or at least causes a temporary lapse in judgement.

I’m acquainted with the former mistress (never outed) of a very senior British politician. She confided that the police on duty at the House of Commons know not just the faces of MPs’ wives but their mistresses – the better to avoid diplomatic incidents. Sex will always be a complement to power. We should worry only when it corrupts by making people complicit in deception. Or when politicians use their position to exploit the vulnerable.