Shortly after I began my working life, on the edge of the Westminster jungle, I landed a job with a political ‘big beast’; an alpha male, in very much the same mould as Dominique Strauss-Kahn: silver-haired, heavy-set, charismatic. For a few months, he ignored me as I busied away researching stats. Then, during what should have been a routine working lunch, the searchlight
of his wandering eye settled on me and out of the blue he declared passionate love: ‘Say you love me too. I just can’t live without you.’ This was both flattering and confusing. Why now? Why me? This famous man had a devoted wife and a small daughter and at the time that shocked me too. Well, I was young.
In the months that followed, I grew up. I learnt quickly that in the seamy world of British politics — just as much here as across the Channel — the terms of engagement between powerful politicos and young women are a far cry from those we’re taught at school. It’s not the rule of law out there in Westminster: it’s the law of the jungle. And the jungle is full of predators — all different in their manner of pursuit, but all turbo-charged by ego.
The first thing that’s unusual about a political predator is that he’s blinded by conceit. His self-love is so consuming that it’s almost impossible for him to imagine a girl might say no. For my particular big beast, rejection only fuelled his ardour. He showed no fear of law-suits or accusations of harassment. The more overt the put-down, the keener he seemed. Until one day, without warning, he simply lost his cool altogether, pushed me over on the office carpet and lay on top of me, breathing hard. ‘You know you want me!’ he said. I didn’t and kicked him hard.
I was lucky because this big beast was no DSK — nor was he the vindictive type (which we will come to later) who punish rejection by ruining a girl’s career. That kick derailed his pursuit; I chalked it up to experience and moved to a different part of the jungle.
But as DSK mopes on Riker’s island and the press pontificate about sex and the French, I think it worth warning the proud parents of any young woman embarking on a career in British politics that their lovely daughter will be in for a rude awakening. The political neophyte is a gazelle in the great safari park of SW1: surrounded by hungry eyes all watching for weakness. So, with the help of my female colleagues — parliamentary researchers, political advisers and hacks — I have compiled for her this useful compendium of beasts.
The Gorilla Let’s call our first animal the gorilla, because he’s an alpha male who considers the pick of the pack his due, and because like my own big beast and like DSK, he’s often ape-like in appearance: big-headed, heavy-handed, nimble on his feet when a female hoves into view. The most powerful men in politics are often gorillas; great silverbacks, indifferent to the posturing of lesser males, confident that their supplicant mates will stay loyal no matter what. They’re used to capitulation, even adoration, and so confident that public humiliation holds no horror. A friend of mine recalls one gorilla, a former home secretary, first commenting on her bottom, then attempting to seduce her in full sight of a table of other lunch guests. ‘He just didn’t care that everyone was watching,’ she says. Another pal tells a story about a parliamentary King Kong who picked her up in front of a roomful of people, buried his head between her breasts and inhaled loudly before exclaiming: ‘How I love big women!’ Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the House of Lords, may be another classic gorilla. Well — just look at him. Then consider the casual arrogance with which he carried on with Birgit Cunningham, the blonde who eventually kissed and told. John F. Kennedy was a gorilla — charming, arrogant, bullying — whereas both Joe and Teddy were indubitably snakes.
The Snake Now here’s the most insidious predator, the sort who offers to trade information or advancement for sexual favours. Like that very first serpent, he’ll make it seem a reasonable exchange, but you entertain a snake at your peril. There’s no limit to how low they can slither. There’s a cautionary tale doing the Westminster rounds about a former foreign secretary who propositioned a young lady MP in a lift. When she declined, the great man showed his forked tongue: ‘You’ll never make it without me,’ he hissed. Was it a threat? Anyway, the MP soon lost her seat and she now works in a very different field. She can complain to her friends, but nothing is provable. Let’s not pretend that the political press is free from snakes. Another pal who worked with an important TV snake says that he issued quite clear instructions to new female researchers: blow job or no job. Snakes are the most poisonous predators.
The Spider A spider, my girlfriends and I all agree, is usually an older, more experienced predator, who weaves a web around his victim before drawing her in. Let’s take the example of one spidery peer, who has a very distinctive pattern of web. This peer is notorious for complimenting girls on an item of clothing: their boots, say, or a blouse. He’ll then invite the youngster out to lunch and when they accept, send a text suggesting that they wear this particular item — just for him. The young woman sees no harm in this first request and usually complies. A second invitation to lunch is followed by another request to wear something a little more risqué. By the time the hack begins to resist, she is already compromised, enmeshed in her past complicity — and dressed like a tart to boot. You’d be surprised how many girls this noble lord has bundled up.
Another sort of spider weaves a web made of tangled moral threads. The usual rules don’t apply in our lofty world, he insists — only a very bourgeois woman would consider adultery wrong. ‘It’s no more significant than a game of tennis,’ one practised spider insisted to a fly of my acquaintance. Like the spider in the nursery rhyme, the political tarantula will often have a special web away from home, in Piccadilly, say. ‘Come into my parlour,’ he’ll whisper. Don’t. The crocodile Think crocodile tears, and long self-pitying monologues about how Mrs Crocodile doesn’t understand. All the while, one reptilian eye is half open, waiting for the perfect time to snap. Chris Huhne has a Croc-ish aspect. His campaign leaflets claimed proudly that ‘family matters to me so much’ and all the while he was thrashing around with bisexual Carina Trimingham.
Monkey man Well okay, a monkey isn’t a very alarming predator, but nor are our monkey men. There’s no planning, stalking or pouncing involved and often no wives to deceive, rather a compulsive propensity to try it on with almost any lady at almost any time — just on the off-chance they agree. Monkey men are often short and were rarely attractive when young. Just a tiny whiff of power goes straight to their groins. There’s a monkey-like aspect to Sarkozy, in his obvious delight in having snared a desirable wife. A now-married monkey MP was once indiscriminately obsessed with the girls of the press pack. While having an affair with one young reporter, he is said to have proposed to another over lunch. Another monkey man who made it to government used to keep a bowl of condoms on his parliamentary desk. If asked to explain himself, he’d mutter something about Aids and the developing world. In fact, the condoms were just a way of saying: how about it?
So now you’re prepared for the jungle, gazelles. But just one more word of warning. If these political predators are a threat in Westminster, they are doubly so come conference season in a secluded seaside town. Most party animals share the same hunting tactic during conference. They lie in wait until the drinks parties finish and the young gazelles come tottering on to the streets, half-pissed and not yet ready for bed. New girls on the scene are not normally invited to the gorillas’ dinners so the other predators can take their pick. They lure a girl back to their hotel with the promise of a party. But the party is in the predator’s room, and once there he has a killer line: ‘If you leave now, everyone will talk. You’d better stay the
night.’ If you hear these fatal words, get out as quickly as you can.
And the final question: in this era of hyper-scrutiny, where every move is tweeted, snapped or blogged, why don’t these beasts of the jungle get caught? The answer is that they know their prey has too much to lose. ‘If me and four other girls were to put our minds to it, we could bring down a third of the MPs,’ says one of my closest political pals. So why don’t they? Because snitching is a hiding to nowhere. They would be forever known, not for any political feats they may go on to achieve, but for sinking a famous man. Unless it goes too far, harassment is a small price to pay for an interesting career. This would be completely unacceptable in a normal workplace, perhaps, but the Palace of Westminster is anything but normal.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 21, 2011