How we met

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The Independent Culture
Angela Eagle, 36, MP for Wallasey since 1992, is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment. She joined the Labour Party at 16, and has a twin sister who is also a Labour MP. Angela recently became the first senior politician voluntarily to declare her lesbianism, in an attempt to pre-empt unwanted media attention. She met Clare Short, 51, in their joint work on the National Executive Women's Committee, which Clare chaired. Clare entered Parliament in 1983 as the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, and is now the Secretary of State for International Development. Last year she was reunited with her son, Toby, whom she gave up for adoption at six weeks old

ANGELA EAGLE: I suppose I really noticed Clare when she did the Page- Three Bill, which was in the early Eighties. I was totally and utterly shocked at the open misogyny that she was subjected to in the House. I was struck by how brave she was; it actually moved me to write to her, supporting her (as lots of women did), regardless of whether or not her Bill was something I would totally go along with. We would meet casually at the Labour Party Conference and the odd Party event, but it wasn't until I was elected onto the National Executive Women's Committee, of which Clare was chair, that I got to know her better.

The thing that struck me most about her was that she was exactly as she came over in the press: not how those that disliked her portrayed her, but how she came over as a personality. She's a totally honest person - just very straightforward. The word that springs most to mind whenever I think about her is "integrity"; it just shines through. She's very enthusiastic; sometimes overpoweringly so, and physically, she's quite an imposing woman - all this adds up to give a clear, immediate impression of her character. People who don't know her will get exactly the same impression.

I was interested in politics from a very young age; when I was growing up Barbara Castle was my heroine. Barbara and Clare are very different people - I actually know Barbara now - but they have the same strong, striking personalities. They're both women who have no artifice about them, who are just very plain-speaking and powerful. Clare's very persuasive, very idealistic; she can get people enthused because she has a vision, which she can communicate very well, of where we ought to be going as a party. I respect and admire her as someone who has successfully managed to translate her political principles into reality. She's probably the person I most identify with within the Government, because her values are very similar to mine. I think she's possibly the Barbara Castle of her generation.

She's great to be on the doorstep with. Everyone welcomes her with open arms, and they call her by her first name; I think that's always a sign that people identify with someone. The public trust her; they don't expect a politician to be like Clare. When she has agonies about some of the compromises that you have to make in politics, she has them very publicly, and people empathise with those dilemmas. It's probably quite reckless, certainly of her own career prospects, but Clare's just not confined by something as small as "career".

If she's having a particularly difficult time, I'll leave a note for her on the board in the House saying something supportive, and hopefully funny - just so she knows I'm thinking of her. Our friendship has grown out of politics - it's our shared passion - but she's also like a big sister to me. We don't lean on each other - I certainly don't see friendship as a crutch, and Clare is not one to lean heavily on people - but it's unusual in politics to have any kind of friends you regard in that way; the accepted wisdom is that you don't have friends, you have rivals. I don't really know any other friendship in politics like mine and Clare's. There may well be some, but I haven't noticed any.

I told Clare I was going to come out a few weeks before I did, but I didn't feel I needed to discuss it with her before I made the statement. I just informed the people that I thought should know; I didn't go round asking anyone's permission. Clare was totally and utterly supportive, as I would have expected her to be, but we don't have heart-to- heart talks about our private lives. I don't think either of us are that kind of person. She's not met my partner yet, but she will; she'll be the first politician to do so.

I knew nothing about Clare's son until I saw it on the news - I had been warned to watch it - but that might have been because I hadn't seen her for a few weeks. I met Toby subsequently, in fact very quickly thereafter; still, Clare kept her cards pretty close to her chest on that one. I was delighted for her, she was so obviously happy. Clare's a great family person, and suddenly not only did she rediscover her son, but she also discovered she had grandchildren. Those pictures of her and Toby were lovely - they were so life-affirming. But that's what Clare is - she's a very life- affirming person.

CLARE SHORT: The first time I really noticed Angela was at a meeting I was speaking at. It was before she was elected. This young woman, sort of blonde, quite girlish-looking, little, with a quiet voice, got up and made this comment which was incredibly perceptive. I thought, gosh, she's very thoughtful and bright. Later she was in one of the Trade Union seats on the National Executive Women's Committee when I was the chair, so there she was on a regular basis. We did a pamphlet that was seen as absolutely shocking at the time, saying that we had to get more women participating in politics, and that we should look at the Scandinavian system and introduce a quota system. That was the beginning of the move that produced the number of women we have in this Parliament.

Angela is very, very bright. She's also a deeply political person, as I am, but not in the sense of wanting to go round boring everyone about politics all the time. Her approach to life and the world is similar to mine, in that the values you have in your personal life and those in your political life are seamless, they just flow into each other. She cares about people, and likes them, but she's temperamentally different to me; she's far more controlled. Politically she has very similar outlooks, and I can remember saying to her: "You're going to have the same sort of troubles I have in this political life."

She's a twin, and I think it's very interesting being a twin. Twins are used to being so intimately close to someone, that they're slightly restrained with the rest of humanity. I've noticed it with other twins, and it's there in Angela. I quite like that; I'm a bit over-exuberant (as people might have noticed). Angela and Maria were brilliant children. These two girls, aged seven, used to go round the chess competitions and beat all the boys hollow, and the boys hated it! I found these things out later, but it makes me see how the character was born.

Angela's younger than me, but I see her much as an equal. I noticed her initially out of a fundamental respect for her intellectual and political understanding and strength, and that's a very equal kind of force. I've got lots of friends that I love dearly, but Ang- ela is somehow very special, there's something promising about her. I think there's this sense of women in politics coming along now, and she symbolises that optimism for me. She's the next generation.

We have a snatched relationship, but that's the nature of politics. It's a very hard business, and when you're under attack you do feel quite vulnerable. But I know if something bumpy happens to me she's out there, and vice versa. I wouldn't even need to ring her. Then when I see her she'll say something terribly wise. And that's Angela: she's ever so wise. She's very friendly with someone who works with me, and so I have this kind of communication system: I'll say, "Tell Angela she's doing great", or, "Tell Angela we're all there for her".

I don't think she ever actually told me she was gay; I just sort of knew. I even actually guessed who her partner was. It's funny, although I don't see that much of her, I can work her out. We don't have the sort of relationship where we sit around talking about these things - it's much more intuitive and natural. I just felt so proud of her, she handled it so brilliantly; so dignified. It's something that matters enormously to her, and it'll be much better when we've all sat together and talked; it'll kind of complete the relationship that I have with her.

Angela did it because she wanted to be honest, and on behalf of other people perhaps in similar situations. She's steely; she looks at where the reality is, and what's got to be done. She's more thoughtful about these things, whereas I'm a bit more reckless. I just kind of say it all. With Toby, I'd always looked for him, and I always knew that if he turned up then I would tell everybody, whatever the consequences. And that's what I had to do; there wasn't any choice. And if the world turned against me, so be it. But it didn't matter - which is rather nice.

I have a deep, political friendship with Angela, which is personal, but built around the political sphere, and that's unusual: you get your personal bonds with your friends, and your political relationship with your political allies, but with her it's very different. I've got friends I value enormously, and don't see enough. And I've got a huge family - 70 first cousins - so when you're talking about my family, you're really talking. But Angela's friendship is in a different category again, with its own particular specialness. As I've gone through my life I've learnt to value it all. It's life's richness; it keeps you sane, especially in my job. !