Polly Toynbee: Reborn, as a lady of the right

She is new Labour's fairy godmother. Now the Tories want a piece of her magic

Polly Toynbee, the queen of leftist journalists, was carried into last week's headlines on a camel. Or rather, it was a cameline metaphor from her book Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain, which caught the imagination of a Tory MP. She depicted society as a desert caravan. "When the front and back are stretched so far apart, at what point can they no longer be said to be travelling together at all, breaking the community between them?" she asked.

This image was plucked out by the little-known Greg Clark, one of the backroom thinkers in David Cameron's project to recast the image of the Conservative Party. Clark suggested that Toynbee's metaphor was more appropriate to modern Tory philosophy than one used by Winston Churchill, of a society as a ladder up which all may climb and a net to catch anyone who falls.

That a Tory should place a liberal journalist ahead of the great war leader was hotly counter-intuitive, particularly when the journalist was Polly Toynbee, whose immodest air of authority has so often infuriated the right.

Boris Johnson, who claims to be every inch as modernising a Tory MP as Clark, almost choked on his cornflakes at the idea that the party should take lessons from the woman he called New Labour's "fairy godmother". He raged: "She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending, schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain. She is the defender and friend of... every gay and lesbian outreach worker, every clipboard-toter and pen-pusher and form-filler whose function has been generated by mindless regulation. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness."

There is some personal history here. Toynbee, now 59, stepped out many years ago with a young man who went on to be Boris's uncle. She can remember what Boris looked like in the nude when he was six months old.

Bruce Anderson, another member of Cameron's fan club and who writes for The Independent, was equally vitriolic about a writer he accused of living in a "Stalinist theme park". But here again there is personal history. Seven years ago Toynbee did not care for the way Anderson was behaving at a party and emptied her wine glass over him.

On the Labour side, there are those who will never forgive Toynbee for a different offence. In 1981, when she was married to political columnist Peter Jenkins, they signed the Limehouse Declaration. This was a cry of protest over the leftward turn taken by the Labour Party that prefigured the formation of the Social Democratic Party. She was SDP candidate in Lewisham East in 1983. To some, that was unforgivable treachery.

But it is not her centre-of-the-road views on party politics that drive her detractors to fury, but her pronouncements on marriage, education, religion, and whether the well-off in society have an obligation to the poor. She has been accused of hypocrisy for writing about poverty and state education because she is well off, and because two of her three children spent part of their education in private schools.

But the bulk of her wealth came from a personal tragedy. After 22 years of marriage, Jenkins died in 1992 from a lung problem, bringing her an unexpected insurance pay-off. She is far from being the only prominent liberal journalist whose children are privately educated, but her head seems to be furthest above the parapet.

Similarly with her private life. After Jenkins's death, she took up with a fellow journalist, David Walker, who was already married. This is not an uncommon story either, but she was then the BBC's social affairs editor and the Daily Mail had her in their sights for allegedly promoting a social agenda that threatened the institution of marriage. Her mother, Anne, was divorced twice and Polly grew up believing that it was the quality of love that children receive that matters rather than the family structure.

With Mail journalists rooting around in her life, apparently trying to build a picture of her as a wanton marriage breaker, Toynbee took the bold step of striking first, with a piece in The Independent attacking "sleaze merchants". This provoked a rare personal response from the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, who wrote a piece for The Guardian accusing her of "disdaining family values" and saying that as a "high-profile commentator" she was, in effect, fair game.

There has never a time in her life when Toynbee's profile has been low. She was born with the burden of a famous name. Her grandfather was the historian Arnold Toynbee. Her father, Philip Toynbee, was a writer and friend of the Mitford sisters. This legacy seems to have instilled in her an early fear of failure.

She was scarcely out of her teens before she had become a famous Sixties rebel. Having failed the 11-plus exam she went to Badminton boarding school, then Holland Park Comprehensive, before Oxford University. She had only one A-level, but surprised her teachers and family by winning a scholarship to read history. In her gap year, she worked for Amnesty International in then white-ruled Rhodesia, until the government expelled her.To add to her fame, she had a first novel Leftovers published in 1966.

After 18 months at St Anne's College, Oxford, Toynbee decided she hated it, and walked out. She took menial jobs at a Tate & Lyle factory and in a Wimpey hamburger bar.

"I had a loopy idea that I could work with my hands during the day and in the evening come home and write novels and poetry, and be Tolstoy," she has said. "But I very quickly discovered why people who work in factories don't usually have the energy to write when they get home."

Fortunately, her status as a published novelist secured her work helping to write the diary for The Observer, and so she drifted into liberal journalism, and has not looked back. But those eight months of skivvying enabled her to write a book, called A Working Life. She repeated this experience in a different form four years ago when she tried living off the minimum wage on the Clapham Park Estate, in south London, to produce the book Hard Work.

Controversy has followed Toynbee throughout her life - usually, it must be said, because she has invited it. This time, though, it came unannounced as a fallout from the Conservative Party's struggle to find a new image, in which it borrowed her name without asking whether she minds. It has meant she has had to weather some more abuse, But in her line of work, the publicity can only do her good.

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