As a ‘Westminster wife’ for nearly 40 years, I was always prepared for the worst that could happen. Most of us were.
My late husband, Austin Mitchell (above), was Labour MP for Great Grimsby from 1977 to 2015 and I, with other spouses and family members, lived with the latent fear that our private lives would be the next to be invaded.
You might wake to find your husband’s activities or affairs splashed across the front pages, leading TV news bulletins or trending on Twitter. Suddenly, your name would be fodder for jokes on TV shows such as Have I Got News For You.
I came face to face with that horrible dread one Friday night in Austin’s constituency. The phone rang.
It was a journalist from a national newspaper, asking me if my husband was having an affair with the American film star Shirley MacLaine. She had apparently revealed that she’d had sex with a Labour MP and everyone was desperate to know who.
Luckily for me, my husband was not the politician in question and the Press were unsuccessful in their search.
Years later, Ms MacLaine revealed in her autobiography that it had in fact been Australian Liberal MP Andrew Peacock (and as an added bonus, she’d also had sex with two prime ministers — Olof Palme of Sweden and Pierre Trudeau of Canada).
Street style: Sienna Miller as Sophie, wearing an £850 Leilani shirt dress by Stella McCartney
Nevertheless, that experience meant I could easily relate to the stomach-wrenching moment when Sophie (played by Sienna Miller), wife of MP and rising star in the Tory Party James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) in the new Netflix political drama Anatomy Of A Scandal, discovers that her husband has been sleeping with his parliamentary researcher Olivia.
The five-month affair is bad enough — but then the researcher makes a devastating allegation. Suddenly the family’s charmed life —they have a young son and daughter — comes crashing down.
What follows is an edge-of-the-seat legal thriller which takes us from the House of Commons to the Old Bailey — Downton’s Michelle Dockery plays a high-flying QC —via the Whitehouses’ opulent country home and Downing St.
The story, told over six one-hour episodes that are available from today, is based on the brilliant novel about life at Westminster by former journalist Sarah Vaughan.
It is beautifully shot (the fashion is to die for), highly watchable and, most importantly, entirely credible.
Co-created by David E. Kelley (best known for Ally McBeal and, more recently, hit dramas The Undoing, Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers), it is a political drama rich in dark intrigue.
Camel tones: £1,700 Manuela coat by Max Mara, £390 Lottie midi dress by Cefinn, £645 Louboutin shoes
And it rings true to what I know about British political life and the experiences of women whose lives centre around Westminster.
It’s not just your relationship that suffers but, as this series skilfully points out, every aspect of your personal life.
Looking at a picture of her husband’s lover on her mobile phone, Sophie involuntarily vomits. I can understand that horror — it is almost visceral.
James is dashingly handsome and already a junior Home Office minister. He’s a bestie of the Prime Minister and an ex-Libertine — a fictional version of the infamous Bullingdon Club at Oxford, whose past members include our PM and a predecessor, David Cameron, along with George Osborne.
There are many hazy flashbacks to Bolly-chugging students smashing up a restaurant and demolishing their reputations, suggesting that the series is set during Cameron’s premiership of 2010 to 2016.
James Whitehouse is the man who comes to a church hall near you to listen sympathetically to your complaints about your energy bills, or the unfairness of having to pay for parking at your local hospital.
But he is also the man who is exposed — by the Daily Mail! — as an adulterer who had sex with his researcher in a House of Commons lift.
The lifts in question are those in the main Palace of Westminster building — very old, small and creaky — which take you from the riverside terrace and restaurants on the ground floor to the committee rooms and Chamber above.
They bear a discreet notice on a copper plate announcing that only MPs may travel in them if a Division of the House has been called.
Funnily enough, when I frequented Westminster, I often found myself wondering if they had been used for secret dalliances.
In fact, I once asked someone who had worked in the Commons for years whether it would even be possible to have sex in the lifts. She pointed out that they were very slow to, ahem, arrive.
Country chic: More laidback in a Fair Isle sweater and £360 Le Chameau wellies
During my marriage to Austin, I was working as a television producer for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and revelations about life and love at Westminster were always hot gossip.
Occasionally — and usually sensationally — they were revealed in the newspapers and on TV for everyone to enjoy.
Who could forget Edwina Currie’s confession that she’d had an affair with the future Conservative Party leader and PM John Major between 1984 and 1988, when he was a government Whip? Revelations about his ‘big blue underpants’ and how when they took a bath together, he always opted for the ‘tap end’, kept sales of her autobiography top of the leaderboard for weeks.
Nor has anyone at Westminster forgotten the moment in 1992 when they saw The Sun’s front page with the banner headline: ‘Paddy Pantsdown’.
The late Paddy Ashdown, then the rather holier-than-thou leader of the Liberal Democrats, had, it was claimed (and he later admitted), enjoyed a brief affair with Tricia Howard, a member of his office staff.
David Mellor, Heritage Minister in John Major’s government, tried to ride out the Press fallout after his affair with actress Antonia de Sancha was revealed in 1992. Within weeks he had stood down.
The first minister to resign in Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998 was Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, after what he claimed was a ‘moment of madness’ — he had gone for a midnight walk on part of London’s Clapham Common notorious for gay assignations, and was robbed after meeting a stranger.
Best of British: Sienna’s character, MP’s wife Sophie, in a £1,420 maxi dress by Victoria Beckham
A few years later, Davies, by then a member of the Welsh Assembly, had to resign again after The Sun exposed his visits to another well-known ‘cruising’ spot, where he initially claimed to have been ‘badger-watching’.
It was at this point, as a high-profile MP’s wife, that I concluded ‘they’re all at it’.
One of the most memorable casualties of a Westminster affair was Margaret Cook, who was married to Robin Cook, the Labour Foreign Secretary, for 29 years.
Margaret and Robin didn’t see much of each other during the week. He would be in London and she would be in Edinburgh, at the hospital where she worked as a consultant haematologist.
A photographer had snapped Robin dashing out in his slippers to feed a Westminster meter early one morning. Curious, a journalist decided to check out why that might be and discovered that Cook’s secretary, Gaynor Regan, lived on that street.
Margaret suffered one of the worst humiliations ever experienced by a political wife. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Press Secretary, called Robin, who was with his wife in the Business Lounge at Heathrow, about to depart for a riding holiday in the U.S. (Margaret had packed Robin’s case for him and, as a surprise, had included a new and expensive pair of leather riding chaps).
A journalist from a national newspaper asked me if my husband was having an affair with the American film star Shirley MacLaine
Margaret had known about the affair but Campbell now told Cook it was ‘make your mind up time’. The News of the World was going to publish a piece about it. Did he want to stay with his wife or move on?
Robin chose Gaynor and cemented his decision in Westminster history by telling Margaret there and then. The holiday was off. Margaret caught the next plane home to Scotland.
I phoned her the next week, wife to wife, and later interviewed her for my book Westminster Women. She knew little of Westminster life and had been too busy with her job and bringing up the couple’s two young sons.
This is the kind of story that happens all too often in high-profile careers, and at Westminster particularly, where long hours and the intensity and purpose of the job foster close working relationships.
Whoever you are, you can become very close to your co-workers. The real world fades away and it is only too easy to believe that the excitement and intimacy which, for the moment, has replaced the real life you live elsewhere is now ‘the real thing’ in every way.
Take that rather undignified CCTV footage of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock clumsily clutching his secret flame — and old friend — Gina Coladangelo in a departmental office.
It put paid to his ministerial career and his marriage.
Gina was his adviser and one can imagine how easily, during the high drama of the pandemic, they had become lovers.
Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell (left) is pictured with his TV journalist & producer wife Linda McDougall, at their Bargate home
Hancock, who has clearly not relinquished hopes of assuming high office in the future, will no doubt be encouraged by the initial response from the Prime Minister’s director of communications to James Whitehouse’s infidelity in Anatomy Of A Scandal.
‘Sex doesn’t have to kill a career these days,’ he tells the disgraced MP. ‘You might even gain some fans among the older male voters.’
But for me it is an exchange between Sophie and her mother-in-law that sums up the painful reality for many Westminster wives. ‘Politics requires a certain ability to lie,’ the mother-in-law says.
‘Not to lie to me,’ replies Sophie.
For the wives who have discovered their husbands’ infidelities or learned about them from the media over the years — and those who will do so in the future — those words will strike a bitter chord.
n Anatomy Of A Scandal is available on Netflix from today. Linda McDougall is the author of Westminster Women.
Never mind the sizzling pot, the stealth wealth fashion’s to die for
By Luke Leitch
Sam Perry worked as the costume designer on Netflix’s Anatomy Of A Scandal
Real-life Westminster sleaze might be deliciously binge-worthy — but real-life Westminster fashion? What a turn off.
So instead, the costume designer on Anatomy Of A Scandal, Sam Perry, wisely serves up a gloriously glamorous and highly unrealistic wardrobe that’s sported most notably by Heathfield Old Girl Sienna Miller as the put-upon Sophie Whitehouse.
And so we have Carrie Johnson meets Carrie Bradshaw. Sophie’s character is a political wife who knows her fashion.
And with the exceptions of a handsome green £1,420 maxi dress by Victoria Beckham, a grey £850 viscose Leilani shirt dress by Stella McCartney and the masterstroke inclusion of a comely £390 printed silk Lottie midi dress from Cefinn — the label launched by Samantha Cameron months after her husband left office in 2016 — Sophie is not a British political wife who feels obliged to wear British design.
Instead, she has apparently whiled away her husband’s ‘fact-finding’ absences by shopping her way through the luxury boutiques of Kensington and Chelsea.
That Cefinn dress, for instance, is teamed with a £1,700 caramel cashmere Manuela coat by Max Mara (Italian), a £1,800 Balloon bag by Loewe (Spanish) and a pair of £645 suede slingback pumps by France’s Christian Louboutin.
The look (although too perilously close to Remainer Chic for any real-life junior minister’s wife in a Tory government to consider for a nanosecond), is enviably stylish.
Just like the memorable wardrobes in hit drama series Succession and The Split, Sophie’s no-logo, no-expense-spared wardrobe in Anatomy Of A Scandal is in a style termed ‘stealth wealth’. Expertly crafted, elegant clothes in excellent fabrics.
Sophie’s Jil Sander handbag, her white silk dress from The Row and her luxury wellies from Le Chameau (a snip at £360) are further examples of Perry’s tasteful deployment of the Netflix costume budget.
Cleverly, Perry leans into Miller’s famous real-life boho style — favouring plenty of camel tones and Celine-esque separates to entangle the actress’s own fashion preferences with her role.
Meanwhile, her country clobber, those boots apart, is purposely far less polished than what she wears when in London: highlights include a very Alice Temperley trilby and a cream and blue Fair Isle sweater.
Sophie’s husband might be a Bullingdon-style bounder, but she has plenty of keepers in her wardrobe with which to hide her internal turmoil beneath an impeccable fashion facade.
And while Anatomy Of A Scandal’s sense of style might be way off when it comes to real Westminster life — you don’t see Max Mara in the House of Commons every day — it offers some lovely fashion eye candy to sweeten that all-too-credible stench of sleaze.