LONDON — British Prime Minister John Major, facing an uphill battle for reelection next spring, has unveiled a hitherto unused weapon: his wife.
By persuading Norma Major to enter the political arena for the first time, he has put pressure on Cherie Blair, wife of Labour Party leader Tony Blair, to mobilize spouse-power, too.
No sooner had Mr. Major announced that his wife would be at his side in campaign swings right up to polling day - expected during next April - than Mrs. Blair moved to the political front line.
Instead of hitting the campaign trail and making appearances, like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole in the US, Mrs. Blair - a highly qualified (and highly paid) lawyer - has moved for a month into the editorial chair of the top women's magazine, Prima.
While Mrs. Major is out on the stump, helping her husband try to convince voters that the ruling Conservatives deserve another five years in power, Mrs. Blair will tell readers of the October issue about her husband's aims to be the next prime minister.
The head-to-head entry into the political arena of the wives of the two main party leaders is unprecedented in Britain.
The Tories and their Labour opponents are claiming that the spouses' efforts will make a difference. And after three years in the doldrums, the latest opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives are beginning to claw back some support among middle-class voters. But Major's advisers have told him that his appeal is weakest among women.
From 'Mrs. Ordinary' to 'Stormin' Norma'
They calculate that "Stormin' Norma," as one tabloid newspaper has taken to describing her, will attract back to the Conservative fold women impressed until now by Mr. Blair's youth and charisma.
A Conservative official says: "Her image has been that of a rather homely woman, perhaps even a shrinking violet. Voters are now seeing that she is far more than that." But many in the press still refer to her as "Mrs. Ordinary."
Not to be outdone by Mrs. Blair's surprise venture into journalism, Mrs. Major has been quietly working on a book on the history of Chequers, the official country residence of the prime minister.
Mrs. Major's readiness to go high profile appears to have caught Labour off guard. "Blair is fiercely protective of his wife," says David Hughes, political editor of the mass-circulation Daily Mail.
Being smart and suave may be liability
Mrs. Major, a member of the Church of England and an ex-needlework teacher, has been married to her husband for 26 years. Mrs. Blair holds the coveted legal title of Queen's Counsel, a rare accomplishment for a woman. A Roman Catholic, she has been married to Mr. Blair for 16 years.
Mrs. Major's main asset may be that she is uncontroversial and unlikely to whip up envy among women and hostility among men.
The Labour leader is said by analysts to be concerned that propelling his brainy and stylish wife into the limelight will lead to the kind of problems President and Mrs. Clinton have had to face in the US.
On the other hand, Mrs. Blair has told reporters that she and her husband are equal partners in the marital relationship. That may appeal to younger voters, male and female.