Exclusive: In their first combined interview, the couple tell Kim Knight they are still reeling after being thrown into the spotlight.

She told him via private Facebook message.

A single line: "I will be made leader today."

JOHN ARMSTRONG BACK IN THE HERALD: ELECTION A TWO-PARTY DOGFIGHT

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She went to face the media. He turned off his phone, pulled on a wetsuit and propelled himself under 18 metres of quiet off the Sunshine Coast.

It would be another eight hours before they spoke; 10 days before they saw each other in person.

Jacinda Ardern wants to rule the country: "Absolutely, when you're the leader of the Labour party and you're going into an election, the plan is to be prime minister."

Clarke Gayford: "Yeah. None of that's really sunk in yet for me, completely."

And breathe. This is a couple who have learned to swim with sharks.

Gayford is a spear fisher and diver with his own television show. He was on a scheduled two-week shoot in Mooloolaba, Australia, when the news broke that Andrew Little had resigned as leader of the Labour party.

Ardern became a Labour list MP in 2008, winning the Mt Albert by-election and the deputy leadership in March this year. On August 1, just 53 days out from election, she took the top job.

"It's been crazy," says Gayford. "You should look at her diary. Every 10 minutes is mapped out now ... it's gone nuts. I was painting the fence yesterday and I had strangers, people I don't know, just walking past going 'Oooh, you're painting that before the mother-in-law gets here'. Everyone seems to have a vested interest in what she's doing now."

It's 9am, Monday. Pick your way across the tile pavers to the couple's shoes-off-thanks front door. They're having grass laid on Wednesday. Paddles, the ginger SPCA cat with opposable thumbs, has just had splodges of that fence paint cut from her coat. Gayford cooked porridge for breakfast (raw oats, sliced banana and maple syrup) and Ardern had her first phone meeting at 6.30am. She has a policy announcement at midday, and then a flight to Wellington.

Until now, Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford have managed to keep their private and public lives separate. Photo / Doug Sherring
Until now, Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford have managed to keep their private and public lives separate. Photo / Doug Sherring

This is the couple's first combined interview. The one where they get asked who washes (Gayford) and who dries (Gayford); where it's revealed the last film they saw together was Guardians of the Galaxy (Ardern: "It's as far away from real life as possible") and where they say, in unison, that the perfect date is a night at home.

Can they remember their last day without politics? "Summer," says Ardern. "Oh, no, wait, there was the by-election. Maybe Mahia?"

In early January, Ardern caught and released her first kingfish on holiday at the cellphone reception-free Gayford family bach.

"I taught her to speed-jig," says Gayford. "It's a Japanese technique that's not easy to master. It's quite physical and I taught her off the balcony."

It was a very rough day at sea. "I did question," says Ardern, "as I was reeling it in, whether I could hold the rod while throwing up ... there is, unfortunately, a lack of commitment in the photos ... you've got to really commit to holding it appropriately so it looks a decent size. By that time I was feeling so bad, I'm just kind of slumped with it in my lap."

Just a regular couple? They met when Gayford wrote Ardern a letter expressing his concern about the potential erosion of privacy posed by the Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Bill. They had coffee. They hung out as friends. Eventually, it became a relationship, but for the past three-and-a-bit years, they've kept the private and public separate, with just the occasional social pages photograph and limited references in respective interviews.

Gayford in Canvas, July, 2016: "She is the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Ardern in Canvas, six months later, on whether they might get married: "Why don't you call and ask him?"

Well?

Gayford: "I certainly wouldn't rule it out."

Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford. Photo / Doug Sherring
Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford. Photo / Doug Sherring

They're sitting on their couch with the Kmart cushions, under a framed Dick Frizzell Celebrity Cans print. Ardern's jaw drops: "Did you just give a political answer to that question?"

Gayford claims to be the world's worst procrastinator. He says previous relationships have fizzled out at the three-and-a-bit mark. "I've been really worried that was going to happen ... "

Ardern: "You've just made that so much worse, darling."

Later, Gayford sends the Herald an email. "Honestly, I couldn't imagine life without her now, and I've got no doubt that we will get married at some stage, it was just a weird thing to have to verbalise, as if I was giving the game away by saying that, somehow.

"It's a pretty strange time for us both. I just want to be the best partner I can be, in the background, gently nudging her to the greatness I know she's got inside her."

Ardern, 37, was raised Mormon in Murupara and Morrinsville. Gayford, 40, is from Gisborne, one of the original C4 music channel presenters and a former host of the More FM drive shift and George FM breakfast slot.

His past is, perhaps, wilder than Ardern's? "I just had an Auckland lifestyle, I think, that was pretty - you know - and none of that's a secret if you ever listen to any of the old radio shows that I've done. And jeez, I couldn't be any more than a million miles away from that life anymore if I tried. Think about where you were five years ago and where you are now? Life changes, massively."

Gayford says he could probably halt child poverty if he had a dollar for every time he's been called the First Lady. But, "I don't know if there is a role for me, per se. We've always kept quite separate."

"I would hate there to be an expectation around that," says Ardern. "As much as people see us [politicians] as being really combative, there's always been this code, I guess, that you try and keep one another's family out of it, you don't draw them into politics. On the flip side, people are interested in politicians' lives, who they are, what they stand for. To a certain extent you accept that you can only keep so much of your life private, but I do still hope that we all just remember that our loved ones didn't choose the jobs that we do."

Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern with partner Clarke Gayford at home in Point Chevalier. Picture / Doug Sherring
Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern with partner Clarke Gayford at home in Point Chevalier. Picture / Doug Sherring

For the record, on the parenthood versus politics question that dominated the first 24 hours of Ardern's promotion to potential prime minister, she says "nothing has changed" for the couple.

"Life happens. What will be will be. I always chose to talk about it openly, because lots of people have big decisions like that, that they're making in life when they're juggling multiple things. Politicians aren't alone in that."

But: "While I really want to champion the ability of women to talk about these things, there's a little part of it that we're still going to try and keep private as much as we can. As much as you can in this job."

Gayford had to watch that debate unfold from afar - the second season of Fish of the Day is scheduled to screen late October and shoots for international segments are ongoing.

"Look, yeah, those aspects of it have been hard. It was quite surreal waking up in Australia and seeing my reproductive abilities being discussed on the BBC and in the Guardian ... but we know what happens out there in public, and we also know what goes on in private and that's quite a bit separate. It doesn't cause any tension. It's just 'oh, look what those twits are saying'."

Gayford and Ardern claim they don't fight; that they're both big on talking things through - though they don't always bring work talk home.

"Often I hear him telling other people about his shark encounters and I have mixed views on whether I want to know," says Ardern. Equally, she doesn't share everything "that is all the pain of politics".

He says she relaxes by reading cookbooks. She says he relaxes by mucking around in his shed. The cat likes laps, but she has also learned to be independent - she comes running when the automatic cat feeder starts playing Motorhead's Ace of Spades.

"You can record yourself calling your cat," says Gayford. "But why record yourself calling your cat, when you can train your cat to come to any noise you like?"

He chose the song, he says, after consultation with his self-appointed committee of one. Ardern shakes her head. "Appalling."