New Labour ladies lunch at a bastion of male chauvinism

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IN AN almost orgiastic display of political incorrectness, the Cabinet's two best known women members yesterday lunched at that redoubt of male chauvinism - the Garrick Club.

New Labour politicians have long been known to be specialists in rebuttal. But Mo Mowlam, Minister at the Cabinet Office and Baroness Jay, Leader of the Lords and women's minister, have now elevated the skill to an art form.

In order to dispel the widespread belief that the government was out to ban men-only clubs, the two ministers enjoyed an acceptably hearty lunch in the club's Milne Room - the only dining room at which women are admitted - as guests of The Independent.

Since the two ministers are collectively responsible for policy on women, their mere act of lunching at the Garrick, whose members in 1992 voted by an awe-inspiring majority of four-to-one against admitting women as members, decisively lays to rest reports earlier this month that the Government was proposing to ban men-only clubs.

Baroness Jay chose carrot and basil soup followed by scallops, while Dr Mowlam, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, enjoyed avocado salad followed by liver and bacon. Both drank - modestly - from a Hawks Bay Australian White wine, accompanied by mineral water.

The Milne room, named after the club's most famous benefactor, the author of Winnie the Pooh, has the same dark wooden tables, unadorned by table cloths, as the men's dining room. More comfortingly for the distinguished women guests however, the portraits dominating it are of celebrated actresses: Mrs Siddons appearing in the dagger scene as Lady Macbeth, Ellen Terry, as one of the Merry Wives of Windsor, and - most stunning of all - a painting of the young and beautiful Gladys Cooper appearing in My Lady's Dress in 1914.

The Garrick, whose home is a handsome Georgian house at the heart of London's theatreland, enjoys a special notoriety as an especially high- profile men-only club. Unlike most of the equally famous "gentlemen's clubs" in St James's, which have never even debated the issue of admitting women members, the Garrick appalled a minority of its distinguished membership of lawyers, actors and leading journalists by rejecting moves to admit women. Even Dr Mowlam's Tory predecessor in Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, voted for the admission of women members.

The leading Liberal Democrat lawyer Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a member since the 1960s and a prominent champion of admitting women members, resigned in protest four years ago after complaining that "it became clear that members of the Garrick are implacably hostile to female membership." After their lunch, Baroness Jay, who has eaten in the club several times before as a guest of her first husband, Garrick member Peter Jay, the Economics Editor of the BBC and former Ambassador in Washington, said that the government was as determined as ever to enact its programme of combating discrimination. But she added: "When and how people eat lunch is not part of our agenda. I would not myself join a single- sex club and I find it difficult to understand why anyone would. But I am very glad to have accepted hospitality here."

Dr Mowlam said: "I am very pleased to have eaten lunch at the Garrick club, which has a policy of non-membership for women. We are a government that believes people ought to have choice. Men-only clubs are a matter of choice and it not part of this government's agenda to stop that choice." Dr Mowlam added that she herself would on occasions feel more comfortable exercising in a single sex gym - or at least at times when men were not admitted.