OPINION - Don’t pity my friend Angela Rayner — let’s clear out Westminster’s pathetic men

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·4-min read
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 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

The Mail on Sunday story about Angela Rayner doing a “Sharon Stone” and “flashing” Boris Johnson during PMQs by crossing her legs is as absurd as it is depressing. The idea that our Prime Minister — a man with a sex life so fruity, he’s a walking sperm bank — is going to be discombobulated by a someone uncrossing their legs in front of him is just laughable. It would be a different matter had it been SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford wearing a kilt in true Scotsman mode.

The question now is who is the real culprit here? Is it the political editor of the Mail on Sunday and everyone associated with publishing the story? Is it the pathetic Alan Partridge Tory MP who clearly still gets fizzy pants from thinking of that Nineties film and probably owns driving gloves? Is it the Prime Minister for being the poster boy for a sexist, boorish, laddy politics which sees young female advisers as “totty” and dismisses older women MPs’ safety concerns as “humbug”? Is it the generally misogynist culture of Westminster?

All of the above. But because there are so many culprits, it must not mean they can get away with blaming each other. Tory MPs are blaming Alan Partridge — it’s just one bad apple — and promising to find him. Well good luck with that. But many female MPs, advisers and lobby journalists are also fed up with years of the sexist, old-fashioned way we report on women in politics. In my two decades of being a political adviser, I saw female politicians regularly ridiculed, humiliated, and sexualised in a way that men were not.

Male MPs were criticised for their ideological stance, which is fair game. With women, it was always linked to their looks, clothes and — crucially — how fanciable they were. A famous male columnist once wrote an entire piece based around why he didn’t want to sleep with my former boss, Harriet Harman. Brad Pitt he was not. Britain’s first female home secretary, Jackie Smith, and her then shadow, Theresa May, earned the headline “breastminster” when they had the temerity to wear a V-neck top in the chamber. The list goes on. The difference here is that Rayner has hit back and the increased number of women in Parliament are backing her. I know from our personal exchanges that she is grateful for the support. She is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met and she has often told me she loves the rowdiness of politics, but she would still feel shamed by this because it that’s what a story like this is designed to do.

There are also more women involved in political reporting and although they are still in the minority, they hate this type of lazy, old-fashioned misogynistic journalism. My phone has been buzzing with female journalists who are mortified and embarrassed by this story. The Speaker has received some criticism for calling for a meeting with the journalist and his editor — not to remove any privileges like a lobby pass but to discuss the sexist tone of the piece which has been rejected.

The truth is that all players on the Westminster stage need to play their part and grow up — from male MPs to advisers to journalists. When you look at other countries — like Ukraine? — their political class and press seem to be able to cope with having senior women without reducing them to their body parts. Why can’t we?

My undying love for Life After Life

I’ve been beguiled by the BBC2 adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s novel, Life After Life. It’s the story of a young girl, Ursula Todd, who keeps dying but gets reborn. It’s ethereal, haunting, beautifully shot and has a wonderful cast including Thomasin McKenzie, inset, Jessica Hynes and Fleabag’s Sian Clifford plus the dulcet tones of narrator Lesley Manville.

The story, which begins in the First World War, has strong parallels with what’s going on right now — a pandemic in the form of the Spanish flu and conflict in Europe. It also deals with a young woman navigating a deeply patriarchal society — plus a change.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so poignant and so very sad. Warning: have your tissues at the ready because the snot bubbles will be out in full force. But it felt very cathartic. Sometimes you just need a good old weep at something which isn’t the news.

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