Oona King: Indecent proposal

Whoops! Just when she'd shaken off an unfair reputation as a blabber-mouthed Blair Babe, out slips her allegation that she was offered £10,000 to have sex with a sleazy Labour MEP

David Blunkett is not the only Labour politician phoning colleagues to apologise this weekend. Oona King's bombshell claim that a sleazy, corrupt, incompetent MEP offered her £10,000 out of his expense account to have sex with her has caused mayhem in Westminster and Strasbourg.

Her boss at the time, Glyn Ford, has already chewed her out in an angry phone call. He not unreasonably pointed out that until she names the guilty party she has smeared every Labour MEP with whom she worked. She has told friends that although she knows it was a bad gaffe she believes it would only compound the error to go public with the name of the long-serving Labour MEP who propositioned her.

King thought she was contributing to an interesting debate about sexism in public life when she reminded a journalist from the Daily Mirror that she had written a piece for the paper some years before including the "indecent proposal" anecdote. She was contributing to the debate - as a case study in how years of serious but worthy work can evaporate with one misguided interview.

The Bethnal Green MP may not be the first politician to be caught in a storm generated by a comment that rises, with vengeful fury, from yellowing newspaper cuttings. But she can ill afford the gaffe. Although she has a majority of 10,057, she narrowly avoided de-selection by a hostile local party last year and now faces the prospect of George Galloway's standing against her at the next general election. She has said she is going to "finish him off"; he calls her a "parliamentary poodle" who will "dance any tune" that Tony Blair whistles.

Both sides say that she has been targeted because Respect, Galloway's anti-war party, polled best in the East End of London during last summer's local elections. There is something more lurking in the background: her passionate speech in defence of the Iraq war in the crucial Commons vote in March 2003 is considered somehow more offensive because she is mixed race. She supported the war because, like Ann Clwyd, she had a prior interest in the country. Both women campaigned against Saddam Hussein's brutality long before Mr Blair or George Bush latched on to his genocidal record as a casus belli. Only King, however, attracts real vilification from elements on the Left.

It's all the more strange considering her noble heritage as a civil rights campaigner. Her grandfather was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in the United States. Her father, Preston King, was jailed for refusing to undergo a medical for the Vietnam draft unless the board addressed him with the same honorific - Mr - that it accorded white conscripts.

It was to please her mother, Hazel, a white, Geordie, Jewish special needs teacher that she became interested in politics. The way she tells it, she took up the cause after coming across her mother crying tears of frustration at the British government's failure to intervene militarily in Ian Smith's Rhodesia.

"She is very close to her mother and her aunt," says Glenys Kinnock, who she worked for in Brussels. Her aunt (her mother's sister), is Miriam Stoppard. Her father, a political philosopher, has now started a new family in Australia.

King has said she missed his presidential pardon in the White House in 2000 because she was patching up her own marriage. She married a fellow Brussels researcher, Tiberio Santomarco, in 1994. A friend describes him as "a handsome, languid Italian" and says she tries hard to please him. He, however, has resented the hours she puts in as an MP for an inner-city constituency and sought to ban politics from their house.

"My husband had to say he was leaving for me to come to my senses," she told The Independent earlier this year. Dr Stoppard had apparently seen the crisis coming. King recalls her aunt saying, "Every night you didn't come home until after midnight you killed him a little more."

She went to Haverstock School in Camden, a comprehensive favoured by the offspring of north London intellectuals - fellow pupils were New Labour high-flyers David and Ed Miliband. From there, via a politics degree from York University, she pitched up in Brussels in the early 1990s to work first for Glyn Ford and then for Glenys Kinnock.

A colleague who remembers her from those days says she was not naturally gifted at the administrative side of her job. Her boss was forever being sent by her hapless aide to the wrong event with the wrong speech on the wrong day.

There were, nevertheless, other qualities and Mrs Kinnock remains one of her best friends, a staunch member of a dwindling band of supporters: "She's extremely bright, such a real person and very, very committed to the Labour Party."

Her other political friends, called this weekend, all hymned her talents, her intelligence, her humour and her hard work. But ask about her judgement and they ask to be excused. "You have to understand there is a side to Oona that is wild," said one.

She once said that "an updated filing system is the key to happiness". Sending Eid cards to her Hindu constituents as she recently did, blaming an administrative error, presumably opens the door to misery. This reputation as a scatty airhead is deeply unfair, her supporters insist. They say she realised early on that the "Blair Babe" tag was a terrible hindrance. After the umpteenth call from journalists asking her to comment on a trivial life-style story she dramatically scaled back her exposure, limiting her interviews to housing policy and genocide.

As her face was splashed across the tabloid press last week the UN Security Council expert panel praised her report on arms flow in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Needless to say, her work in the Congo did not feature in any of the coverage. "Tough," said one observer and former friend, admitting schadenfreude. "She was happy enough to ride the Blair tiger, she didn't get promoted like she thought she would and now she is whining while the Blairites do nothing to help."

Ah yes, her career. "Many of us expected her to soar but it just hasn't happened yet for whatever reason," says Mrs Kinnock. She is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Patricia Hewitt, rather a poor return for two terms of conspicuous loyalty to Mr Blair including incurring the wrath of her Muslim constituents for her support for the Iraq war.

By way of comparison Ruth Kelly, who is younger than King, capped a string of promotions earlier this year when she became Alan Milburn's number two in the Cabinet Office. Most expect her to make the Cabinet in a Labour third term. Until recently King, 37, "moaned like hell" about her lack of preferment. Friends detect a sense of resignation in recent months. "She's still very young," is a common refrain from those who would seek to comfort her this weekend.

Harriet Harman once praised her for "still being normal" which drew the response, "Well they'll beat it out of me." "They" clearly have beaten some of it out of her: now she must prove that she's become a better politician as a result.

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