Harriet Harman has been on C4 news this evening defending Gordon Brown against the charge that he doesn’t take women in the cabinet seriously. People who are more emotionally involved with the fortunes of the Labour party and the feminist movement than I am will probably find that quite head-in-hands distressing. Harriet Harman, champion of, er, all women who are Harriet Harman, staring at a record of 12 years’ failure and saying blithely that there was “more work to be done”.
The charge was levelled initially by the departed Minister for Europe Caroline Flint, who wrote to Brown as follows.
Several of the women attending cabinet – myself included – have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing. I am not willing to attend cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer.
This has been greeted by some scorn by left-wing commentators. Martin Kettle reckons it “says more about Flint than it does about Brown” and Andrew Sparrow remarks caustically, “Yes, that’s the same Caroline Flint who posed for a magazine fashion shoot last month.”
It’s funny he should say that, because I remember that shoot and the accompanying interview, which appeared in the Observer on 10 May, and I remember it because it seemed so very oddly timed. Not, I should add, that there would be anything odd about interviewing the Minister for Europe a month before the European elections. But for the Life and Style section? It was such a fluffy piece that even Flint’s customary froideur could not spike it up. Dead parents, tears, the trials of single motherhood, all delivered with elegant, sparing, non-yukky writing. A stone (if it could read) would have read sympathetically. I did.
I noticed it because it seemed to me to arrive on the very pivot of the fortnight when Labour’s fortunes started to plummet irreversibly. (I say that with hindsight, of course. At the time it merely seemed like Labour’s worst week ever.) The Telegraph’s expenses season was still fresh news, and the resultant anger, now hardened into a much colder sort of fury, was then at its peak. The paper was just starting to turn its fire on the cabinet, and on some of the most outrageous claims. Margaret Moran’s dry rot had been outed the previous day, as had Barbara Follett’s security patrols and Keith Vaz’s whatever-slimy-business-it-was Keith Vaz was up to.
The parliamentary authorities had just called the police to investigate the leak, marking the beginning of the “they don’t get it” meme which has only barely abated a month later. A Populus poll that day put Labour on a turgid 26 following on from a BPIX 23 the previous day, and the following week four polls would give them an even more appalling range of 20-23.
In two other opinion pieces in the same Observer, the former chairman of the Public Standards Committee described Jacqui Smith’s housing arrangements as “near-fraudulent”, and Andrew Rawnsley wrote an opinion piece about expenses that rivalled anything produced by the Telegraph for sheer rage. He mentioned seven Labour figures in disparagement, and no Tories. Oh, and some prison officers, not to be left out of the fun, piled in on attacking the government by expressing outrage at the imminent privatisation of six prisons.
And there, in the middle of this, is Caroline Flint on a couch in a red satin dress.
Now, I’m not normally one for conspiracy theories, and I wouldn’t piss on Caroline “throw ’em out” Flint if she was on fire and I’d just drunk five pints of weak tea. But I thought at the time, is this a blind? The Observer also tried to scare us with the Tories (“rich people!”) that day, and Jon Cruddas put on the scary BNP glove puppet for the Letters page. Is it, I wondered, a total coincidence that under all these dire headlines for Labour appears a pretty picture of an attractive and mostly sane Labour minister talking about Her Life As A Woman and wearing high street dresses? In a tame paper (as it was then. What a difference a month makes)? It comes across slightly, I thought, as window-dressing.
Well, we’ll never know why that particular article appeared on that particular day. Flint’s “window-dressing” barb is specifically linked to cabinet meetings in her letter. And maybe one shouldn’t take the reference to the number of times she has been pressured to “go in front of the cameras” to defend the government too literally.
But, well, it would explain the oddity of the photo shoot and the virulence of her resignation letter, wouldn’t it.