Gordon's with Sarah, Robin's with Gaynor - it's full of young women. That's new

At Brighton, a new sight: a governing party that is living life as normal human beings know it. A senior cabinet minister with a girlfriend is a man with a girlfriend, not a national sensation and, for the first time in government, young women are affecting the ether.

In yesterday's Daily Mirror, signs of the times. Set aside for the moment the fact that they are so New Labour they don't even mention Peter Mandelson's NEC defeat on the front page. Turn to page five - two huge pictures: one of Gordon Brown with his girlfriend, Sarah Macaulay, and the other of Robin Cook with Gaynor Regan, for whom he left his wife last month. But no apocalyptic headlines. A discreet caption under the Robin Cook picture explained that the Foreign Secretary was taking "a leisurely stroll near the seafront at Brighton". And no tooth-sucking over the presence of the Chancellor's girlfriend: Mr Brown was named hero of the day for his hard hitting speech on the economy.

The diary of the Daily Mail, most prurient of tabloids and fervent upholder of family values, described Ms Regan as "quite fanciable". And added: "Come on, Mr Cook, let's see much more of your new love." Clearly we are not in the same era where Cecil Parkinson saw his ambitions torpedoed because his former secretary was pregnant with his baby. That was 14 years, and a whole world away.

During the summer, Jane Kennedy, a Labour whip, separated from her husband and Angela Eagle, Minister of State for the Environment, announced that she was gay. Neither caused more than the mildest stir. Mr Cook remained top of the poll in his party's National Executive elections this year despite his marriage break-up, even increasing his vote by several thousand.

Tony Blair is a conservative on moral matters and yet the modernising culture of new Labour has somehow pervaded even this area of our lives. When Cabinet meetings are run on a first-name basis, and we are encouraged to see our statesmen and women as human beings, revelations about private lives do not create the same waves.

Events which would have created shock-waves even in the dying days of the Conservative government pass by with barely a ripple.

A cynic would say that Labour's strategists had worked this one out in advance, of course. That watching the drawn-out agonies of the Conservative Party through scandal after prurient revelation, they realised they had to prevent similar damage being done to a future Labour government.

Allowing the new Cabinet to be seen as real, modern human beings with real, modern problems and traumas was a perfect pre-emptive strike. Those bygone Tory figures only suffered such messy falls because of the height of the pedestals on which they stood. But it would be too simplistic to imagine that even Labour's very clever image-makers could have manipulated their subjects to quite such an extent.

It would also be pointless to even begin to suggest that they could ever have presented the stern, remote public face which served the Tories so well for so many years, even if they had wanted to try.

The fact is that these are just a very different bunch of people and there is nowhere better to observe it than at Conference. The standard Tory greeting may have been a restrained handshake, but here the sight of ministers - mainly the female ones, it has to be said - greeting acquaintances with lavish hugs and cries of "Darling!" is a common one in the hotel lobbies of an evening.

Old Labour were different again, of course, but their public face was just as remote. And this is less thanks to the modernisation of politics than the feminisation.

The Labour conference, like the House of Commons, has changed its face in recent years. About four fifths of the delegates in Brighton are first- timers, many of them under 30, and a substantial majority are female. Although Labour's 102 women MPs only make up a quarter of the total, they do help to humanise their party's public face.

To suggest that this is their main virtue would be an outrage, of course. Even to say that Labour's women are necessarily more approachable than their male colleagues would also be wrong. But their presence does help to contribute to the public perception that times have moved on.

None of this means, of course, that never again will Labour politicians find their private lives emblazoned across the front pages of the newspapers. But when they do, the chances are the whole business may well be a one- day wonder.

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