Isabel Oakeshott

Angela Rayner has made her defenders look like fools

Her basic instincts have led her astray

Angela Rayner has made her defenders look like fools
Text settings

In Barnsley it’s a pork pie, in Ireland it’s a beer jug and in parts of the North, we now know the word ‘growler’ can mean something else entirely. Thanks to Angela Rayner, I have learned a vulgar term for female genitalia, and something much more useful – that after 20 years of dealing with slippery politicians, I am still capable of being taken in. There I was, thinking I’d seen it all before, when along comes the deputy leader of the Labour party, privately boasting about flashing her crotch in parliament – then publicly crying sexism. And, like many others, I fell for it.

It is now abundantly clear that Ms Rayner is not the target of outrageous misogyny that she had us believe. It turns out that the scurrilous Tory sources who claimed she likes to emulate sex siren Sharon Stone in the movie Basic Instinct to put Boris Johnson off his stride were only repeating what she has said herself. Late one night on the House of Commons terrace, multiple sources heard the flame-haired MP joking about opening and closing her legs to show off her ‘ginger growler’. Yet Westminster’s youngest granny (she’s 42) played the victim better than any actress and had the rest of us rushing to defend her honour. Fans of Ange, myself included, were fuming that this smart, feisty political operator who grew up on a council estate and was told she would never amount to anything should be reduced to a vulgar piece of skirt. In reality, the damsel in distress was crying wolf – and in so doing, setting back the feminist cause.

I’ve never forgotten my first encounter with Rayner, which shaped my view of her from that day forward. It was February 2017 and we were both on BBC1’s Question Time. A few months earlier, an embattled Jeremy Corbyn had appointed her shadow education secretary following a series of resignations from his shadow cabinet. She had been in the Commons for less than two years. I remember wrestling with the concept that someone who had left school at 16 without a single qualification might one day be in charge of the entire education system, wondering whether her poor academic record should disqualify her from such a role – or in fact equipped her to do a better job.

Preparing for the show, I had found some old video footage of Rayner calling for the abolition of private schools. That will be good sport, I thought, and made a mental note to give her a hard time. As the cameras rolled, I made no allowances for her inexperience either as a politician or a TV performer. Truth be told, I was grandstanding at her expense. As we trooped off set, I fully expected the cold shoulder or worse. To my amazement, not only was she entirely unfazed – she went out of her way to be friendly. We had a cheerful chat over a quick glass of wine and swapped phone numbers. I have rarely met a politician with such spirit.

What a pity then that she has handled this sexism storm so badly. After all, there is no crime in joking about Boris Johnson’s notorious wandering eye. In all likelihood, it was just daft banter over a fag. And what if she really does use her legs to distract him? Well, we can all disapprove, but again it’s no crime. Instead of disingenuously fuelling another depressing row about sexism at Westminster, she should have just shrugged it off as the tease it was.

All this confirms what I have long argued: that the debate over sexism at Westminster is rather more nuanced than it sometimes appears. Of course some MPs are guilty of appalling behaviour – the porn-watching ex-MP Neil Parish being a case in point. Such activities and attitudes have no place in parliament and should be wiped out. But the House of Commons is not really full of marauding sex pests. Moreover, in the ruthless world of politics, ambitious women, like ambitious men, are capable of using any advantage they’ve got.

Before feminists cry foul, this isn’t ‘victim shaming’ – because Rayner knows exactly what she’s doing. This powerful, tough woman is playing foolish, leery men at their own game, and generally bossing it. Just one problem: she’s such a hardened street fighter that sometimes she does not know when to stop.

Thanks for teaching me a new word Ange: I still think you’re fab. Next time, don’t play the victim. Just style it out.