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Forgive me, but if someone wrote a story explaining how I was so distracting, my male colleagues could barely function in my presence (a highly implausible proposition, I admit), I really don’t think I would be quite as upset as Angela Rayner seems to be.
I mean, as a compliment it may be a rather back-handed and old-fashioned one.
And, yes, it’s obviously a sexist notion, the idea that a woman might be judged by her appearance as opposed to, say, her grasp of macro-economics; but, let’s face it, in the real world these things do happen.
Speaking personally, I agree with Mae West, who once said that it’s better to be looked over than overlooked.
Then again, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and Rayner is perfectly at liberty to express her feelings in relation to the article in question, published this weekend in The Mail on Sunday, in which a Tory MP is quoted as saying she puts Boris Johnson ‘off his stride’ in the Chamber by crossing and uncrossing her legs when they clash at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The MP, it was alleged, had compared her behaviour with that of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct — and implied that she had done it intentionally, and had even joked about it.
Bold: Angela Rayner in the Commons Chamber at PMQs
‘She has admitted as much when enjoying drinks with us on the [Commons] terrace,’ he told the newspaper. Rayner strenuously denies all this.
She has condemned the whole episode as ‘gutter journalism’ and has accused the (unnamed) source of ‘spreading desperate, perverted smears in their doomed attempts to save [Mr Johnson’s] skin’.
There’s just one tiny fly in her ointment: it transpires that Rayner herself joked openly about the whole thing earlier this year, telling podcast host Matt Forde that ‘it don’t take much, does it?’ to distract Johnson.
That doesn’t mean she admits doing anything intentionally; but she was aware of the comparison on social media — which she said was mortifying — and, as anyone listening to the interview can tell, made light of it.
Which is good: it shows that she clearly has a sense of humour and a healthy degree of self-knowledge.
But to then get so upset when someone else picks up the story . . . well, maybe she is being just a tiny bit disingenuous in her outrage.
Angela Rayner pictured on the ‘Lorraine’ TV show on Tuesday
Still, important figures from both sides of the political divide have joined her in condemnation, including the Prime Minister himself, who has vowed to track down the culprit/s and unleash ‘the terrors of the earth’ upon them.
Conservative MP Caroline Nokes has called for the author of the piece, Mail on Sunday political editor Glen Owen, to have his parliamentary pass withdrawn (although for what is not entirely clear: surely the job of a political reporter is to report on politics, and this story is nothing if not political).
Even the Speaker of the House himself, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has summoned the editor of the newspaper to the Commons to explain himself. So much for free speech
Once again, forgive me, but might it perhaps be the case that everyone is overreacting just a teensy-weensy bit here?
I mean, granted, it’s a tired misogynistic trope, the idea of a woman using her feminine wiles to separate a bumbling prime minister from his briefs; but I’ve had much worse things said about me — including, once, that having sex with me would be the equivalent of having intercourse with a dead pig (thanks to the impeccably woke Guardian for that one).
I don’t at any point recall even a fraction of the outrage — or, indeed, any at all (save from my mother, but you would expect that).
Then again, at the time I was married to a Conservative MP, Michael Gove, and was therefore by extension ‘Tory scum’ — a phrase widely popularised, if I am not mistaken, by Angela Rayner herself last year. But I’m not asking for fairness here.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons last Wednesday
Merely a spot of perspective. The thing is, politics is a dirty, brutal business, and people will use any means necessary — and I do mean any means — to destroy their opponent.
In fact, it is arguably the greatest compliment in politics to find oneself the subject of negative speculation, since that is a surefire sign that important people feel threatened by you.
Instead of playing the damsel in distress, Rayner should own it.
Not just because that’s far more in character with the admirable, tough, working-class woman she really is; but also because there is nothing wrong with being a brilliant, strong, eye-catching female politician — a former care-worker who puts Old Etonians off their stride and ruffles feathers in the corridors of power.
Besides, anyone who has actually seen her in action in the Commons knows that she could dress in sackcloth and ashes and still put the Prime Minister (and, indeed, the rest of the Tory front bench) off his stride.
Nothing to do with legs, crossed or uncrossed, but simply to do with the fact that she is quickwitted, funny, engaging — and generally a far more formidable opponent than her boss, Keir Starmer, who by comparison has the oratory skills of a wet lettuce.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the House of Commons
There is no doubt that Rayner is an extremely charismatic woman, both intellectually and physically attractive — and she knows it.
She stands out in the Chamber not just for her fiery temperament (and mane to match) but also because, unlike so many female politicians past and present, she is proudly, unashamedly feminine.
There is a tendency among women who want to be taken seriously to adopt a studiously modest uniform, all scrubbed cheeks and sensible shoes. Not Rayner.
Her make-up is bold and she clearly makes a big effort with her hair and her clothes. And who can blame her?
She knows how such things play with the professionally outraged Left, so why shouldn’t she ride that wave?
It’s a fantastic opportunity to stick it to the Tories and what she sees as the Right-wing media — while at the same time upping her profile and burnishing her credentials as a potential alternative to Sir Keir.
She is Zippy to his Bungle, and he — and the rest of the pale, male and stale in the House of Commons — had better watch out.