Gordon Brown must have experienced an unwelcome bout of déjà vu this week. Echoes of last September, when a plunge in the polls and a few wobbles from those in the upper echelons of the party led swiftly to rumours around Westminster that a leadership battle was on the way, are the last thing he needs as he attempts to pull the country out of an economic nosedive.
The brief interlude which saw Mr Brown claw back some electoral ground on David Cameron is over. His popularity has again plummeted. The nerves of senior figures in the party have returned. Suddenly, the questions over Mr Brown’s continuing leadership are reappearing. But there is one big difference this time around. While the contender in the frame to take over last September was the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, long thought of as leadership material, the person thrust into the ring this time was not, for many even in her own party, an expected candidate – Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman.
It did not take much for tongues to start wagging that Ms Harman, the ambitious Leader of the House, was setting herself up as Mr Brown’s successor. It all started in a recent cabinet meeting, when Ms Harman was accused of trying to boost her popularity by taking a tough line on putting a stop to City bonuses. That was followed by the suggestion this week that she was behind a theory that the Prime Minister could be packed off to some important-sounding job with the International Monetary Fund – a claim that she has vehemently denied.
Her friends have also leapt to her defence, arguing that loyalty is one of her defining features. “She is just the most loyal person you could ever come across – it is not in her DNA to be disloyal,” says her close friend, fellow Labour MP Joan Ruddock. “I know all of this is nonsense.” Another close associate describes her as “upfront and loyal”. As for her relationship with Mr Brown: “They are a good team and work well together.”
But in the fast-moving waters of Westminster, whether she was behind the suggestion of Mr Brown’s move to the IMF or not has quickly become irrelevant. Linked with her perceived grandstanding on bonuses, it has been enough to put her at the centre of the new leadership speculation.
Ms Harman does not come from a typical background for a campaigning Labour politician. She was brought up in wealthy London surrounds. Her father was a Harley Street consultant, her mother a solicitor whose family goes back to the Liberal MP Sir Albert Spicer. That side of her family is also connected to the women’s rights activist Louisa Martindale. She has roots in the aristocracy – she is the niece of the late Lord Longford, the social reformer.
After attending St Paul’s Girls’ School, Ms Harman headed for York University, where she studied politics. She began to campaign for the issues of equality for which she has become known, acting as a legal officer for a civil liberties group before becoming an MP for Peckham in a 1982 by-election.
She was handed a job as spokeswoman on social security two years later, before being given a post in the shadow Cabinet after the 1992 general election defeat, first as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. After a couple of short-term moves, she ended up as shadow Social Security Secretary heading into Labour’s 1997 landslide.
She has been the subject of controversy over her political career. As with Tony Blair, the media took great interest in her selection of schools for her children. She decided to send her eldest son a Catholic grant-maintained school in 1993, before ending her younger son to a non-Catholic grammar school. It brought shouts of hypocrisy from the media.
Her marriage to the trade unionist and Labour’s treasurer, Jack Dromey, has also brought her more unwelcome headlines and embarrassment. It was Mr Dromey’s admission that, as treasurer, he was not aware of loans given to the Labour Party by people subsequently nominated for honours, which fuelled the cash for honours scandal in 2006. In 2007, she was herself at the centre of Sunday newspaper claims that she had received a donation for her deputy leadership campaign from someone connected to the property developer David Abrahams. Anonymous donations are not permitted.
Her fierce campaigning for women has also brought her some attention from pro-father groups. It culminated in June last year, when two protesters from Fathers4Justice took up temporary residence on the roof of her home in Herne Hill, south London.
The reaction to her possible leadership bid has been met in some quarters of the party with nothing less than hysteria. “If she became leader we might as well all pack up and go home,” says a Blairite Labour MP. One minister admits that while the idea seems far fetched, it would be a disaster for the party. There are some who are already panicking at the prospect, with one cabinet member preparing to approach the amiable Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Yvette Cooper, as a rival challenger to head off the threat.
Ms Harman certainly has her critics in the Cabinet. In fact, her reputation for preaching speeches on equality and City fat cats sets some teeth on edge among key figures in the party. Her comments on bonuses at the last cabinet meeting were met with groans around the cabinet table and brought rebukes from both Hazel Blears and John Hutton.
Some instinctively dislike Ms Harman’s occasionally abrasive approach. “Throughout her political life she has always been challenging,” says Joan Ruddock. “She is a very forceful person and makes her point forcefully. She stands by her principles. People are often uncomfortable if they are challenged on a principle basis. But Harriet’s challenges are about ideas, not about positioning herself.”
Some believe that her career has shown that while she is hot on talking politics and principles, she is less so on policy. Take the example of 1998 when she was sacked within a year of becoming Social Security Secretary. With a surer touch, would she have imposed the unpopular cuts to the benefits handed to lone parents that were seen to have caused her downfall?
For all her bluster, her critics argue she is unable to put ideas into practice. Some see her brief stint as Social Security Secretary as a waste of a big opportunity, coming at a time when Tony Blair was willing to listen to radical ideas of welfare reform. She was also said to have had several rows with her minister, Frank Field.
She should not be underestimated, though. There is no doubt she is a fierce campaigner. She won Labour’s ridiculously long-winded battle to become deputy leader, despite the fact that all four of her rivals were in the Cabinet at the time and she was not.
Her rivals also thought that, upon entering the gladiatorial arena of Prime Minister’s Questions in the absence of Gordon Brown, she would be torn limb from limb by her opposite number, William Hague. In the event, things went quite differently. She gave as good as she got, meeting Mr Hague’s inevitable jibe about her decision to wear her stab-proof vest during a walk in her constituency by recalling the shadow Foreign Secretary’s own fashion disaster – the now infamous baseball cap he wore during the 2001 general election campaign.
Allies say her PMQs performance was a major moment in her ambitions – she realised that she was capable of surviving on centre stage. “Her performance came as a shock to those who want to pigeonhole her,” says a friend. “But she is a very competent politician who has a grip of a range of issues.”
But could Ms Harman, who once said that if she led the Labour Party a stampede to emigrate would follow, really take over from Mr Brown? A supporter has said that Ms Harman confided that she was playing a “long game” to reach the upper echelons of power and won’t let this week’s events put her off that strategy. “She knows these things happen in politics. She can withstand it and she won’t allow it to divert her,” an ally says.
And despite the cynicism in many quarters in her own party, she is the bookies’ favourite as next Labour leader. But in reality, the feeling in Westminster is that when the time comes, she will not be a genuine contender. On the one hand, her tub-thumping speeches in Cabinet and to campaigners lose her supporters in the top ranks of the party, who assess that she is too closely associated with the left and an outdated view of gender politics. But for many in the old Labour left, her well-to-do background means she is not authentic enough.
Whatever Ms Harman’s real chances, this week has marked a dangerous change of pace for the Prime Minister. If he fails to reassert himself before the summer, calls for a leadership contest will become ever louder after the European and local elections in June.
A life in brief
Born: Harriet Ruth Harman, 30 July 1950, London.
Family: Married Jack Dromey, British trade unionist, in 1982. They have three children.
Early life: Her father, John Bishop Harman, was a Harley Street physician. Educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and later attended the University of York where she gained a BA in politics.
Career: In 1978 Harman was the legal officer for the National Council of Civil Liberties. Elected as MP for Camberwell and Peckham in 1982. Secretary of State for Social Security from 1997 to 1998. In 2007 was appointed Labour’s deputy leader, chair of the party and Leader of the House of Commons. Also holds the post of Minister for Women and Equality.
She says: “I’m determined to support Gordon as he takes the country through very difficult times. That is exactly what I am doing and nothing else.”
They say: “It is not in her DNA to be disloyal.” – Labour MP Joan Ruddock