Various explanations have been offered for the decision by the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to leave for his summer holiday before the funeral this week of Dr David Kelly. Mr Hoon himself has let it be known via 'friends' that he would be in trouble with his wife Elaine if he delayed a holiday that was already planned. Others have speculated that he would not have been welcome at Dr Kelly's funeral.
It is possible that the speculation is accurate, but I wonder. One does not, so far as I know, need permission, still less an invitation, to attend a funeral, but if Mr Hoon felt that his presence might be upsetting to the late Dr Kelly's family, it would have been open to him to say that, given his inevitable closeness to the events leading up to Dr Kelly's death, and the charges and counter-charges flying about in the media, the Defence Secretary felt it might be tactless and a distraction to intrude. One would have had some sympathy for Mr Hoon if he had taken this course.
His advisers will surely have warned him what the popular press would do with a 'Hoon bunks off' story; no press secretary worth his or her name would have recommended it. So I incline to think that his wife really did intervene: Elaine Hoon is spoken of as a strong-minded woman. Her husband Geoff has always seemed, by contrast, a little colourless.
And one's mind turns to another Blairite New Labour couple: the former health secretary, Alan Milburn, and his partner Dr Ruth Briel. Nobody could call Mr Milburn colourless but, fierce as he is, Dr Briel is said to be – in the nicest possible way – fiercer. Her husband's sudden resignation, halfway through what looked like a fast-rising Cabinet career, mystified the political world, but of the many explanations on offer, one much-repeated rumour is very convincing: that Dr Briel required him in no uncertain terms to return to the bosom of his family. It is also said that her powers of persuasion lay behind his decision not to live in his unattractive Darlington constituency, but many miles away in the more charming location of Stocksfield, a distant Northumberland village.
I like spirited, strong-minded women. One such, by the name of Cherie, made a huge impression when I first met her at a mutual friend's house in the 1980s. She had brought with her to supper her perfectly pleasant and inoffensive husband, an up-and-coming backbench Labour MP. I think he was called Tony – or something like that. But there was no doubt who was in charge.
Mrs Blair caused her husband no end of trouble later when, a Catholic, she played an important part in their decision to send their son Euan to an out-of-catchment Catholic school, the Oratory. I cannot swear that the decision was hers, only that at the time friends had the impression that it was she who was choosing the school. The decision caused great political embarrassment to him, early in his leadership. But his wife doubtless felt that the children came first.
And quite right too. Nor for a moment do I share the media's disapproval that Cherie Blair should choose Carole Caplin or whomever she likes as a lifestyle adviser. Mrs Blair plainly believes that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her husband's philosophy – after all, many of the best people are fascinated by the possibility of realms other than the obvious – but her stubborn refusal to accommodate herself to what might be expected of a more compliant spouse is breathtaking. Still, he chose her.
Or did he? To this in a moment.
Picture a Cabinet containing Ruth, Cherie and Elaine. This, I think, would be a Cabinet with a kick. By comparison, Tony, Geoff and Alan seem rather drab.
Many years ago, not long after the famous post-election-victory snapshot, in 1997, of the incoming Prime Minister grinningly surrounded by the entire female component of Labour's new parliamentary party, I wrote about the disappointment many of these women were proving in the Chamber. Remembering an old American film, I compared these photogenic but bland and strangely robot-like creatures with the Stepford Wives. Others used the phrase too, and it caught on.
I now think we missed the more obvious Stepford dimension to New Labour. The Stepford Husbands have tended to elude our notice – or, rather, the Stepford connection has.
But when you think about it, don't the ministerial ranks of this government (and particularly, within them, the cadre we think of as notably Blairite) exhibit more than an average complement of curiously hollow men? They look fine. They have the usual features: two eyes each, a nose, good, shampooed and often blow-dried hair, and well-tended teeth; and they lack the disfigurements – the bad skin, the corpulence, the speech-defects and dandruff problems – we usually associate with obsessive political hacks. But they speak, as on a looped tape, in dreadful, dead clichés, giving answers which fail to relate to the questions but are safe, giving nothing away. They have a waxwork quality.
Is Geoff Hoon real? The very surname suggests he may be some kind of a replicant or construct. Alan Milburn speaks a strange, artificial sort of English and never admits to any sort of error or hesitation. Tony Blair has often reminded me of those tailors' male dummies you see in the shop windows of major department stores. Once I saw some of these stripped naked and being removed by a window dresser. They had no genitals, only a sort of smooth lump.
The horrifying possibility occurs that my remark about a fantasy Cabinet containing Ruth, Cherie and Elaine may have been closer to the mark than even its author supposed. What if New Labour, or at least its ultra-Blairite component, turns out to be composed of replicants with refrigerant gas rather than blood running in their veins? What if Elaine, Cherie and Ruth really are in charge, and their husbands are only apparently human but in fact filleted of everything which makes them individual?
If that is true, we have to ask why earlier this year Ruth decided to withdraw her Stepford Husband from the government, and why Elaine may (by forcing hers to go on holiday so that the Daily Mail can pull him apart) shortly do the same?
And what is Cherie playing at with her own waxy pawn? Is there a Mrs Alistair Darling? What is known of Mrs Straw? Was Peter Mandelson's problem that he had no proxy? Who was operating Stephen Byers? All this – and more – I think we should be told.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of