She's shrewd, flirtatious, and formed her first opinion when she was nine months old. But perhaps she's just a little too eager to give away the plot

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The Independent Online
Something odd happens to taxi-drivers when Edwina Currie's name comes up. Spying a copy of A Woman's Place in my hand as we drove to the Commons, one said, "That Edwina's noo one? Is it as raunchy as the first, then? Whoaar." Another, the next day, said, "I met 'er once. 'Ad to deliver a package to 'er flat in Victoria. She come to the door in 'er neglige. Whoarr ..."

Two things are extraordinary about these encounters: first, that both men, uniquely among human beings, spoke like characters in an Edwina Currie novel. Second, that both, despite being neither blind nor undiscriminating, had bought the myth that the Conservative MP for Derbyshire South is a kind of national sexpot. Despite a political career that has lasted 13 years and involved public rows over gays, one-parent families, freezing pensioners and dangerous eggs, she is still thought of as incorrigibly raunchy - somewhere between Cynthia Payne and the Duchess of York in the "isn't she a one" stakes.

The lady herself, of course, does nothing to discourage such an impression. She hints to interviewers about her seismic libido, she writes fictional sex scenes involving fruit and dairy products and, as a score of lobby hacks will tell you, she is a shocking flirt. A friend, who once covered Mrs Currie's visit to a military barracks, recalls watching in fascination as the feisty legislator elected, first to lie prone on the ground to shoot a rifle, then to wriggle her celebrated hindquarters in un-marksmanlike convulsions, until her Home Office skirt slithered rudely up her thighs. Even when she wrote a short story about her beloved Toyota MR2, the air was thick with leathery lust. Mrs Currie, legend says, is chronically On For It.

Smut, however, is the last thing on the agenda when you meet her. She picks one up like a child from school. "Come on," she says briskly in the central lobby of the House, where members collect their shy guests and bear them off to tea. She moves at a head-prefect trot, directs you to hang your coat there, your hat there, sit down here ... In the Members' Tea-room (a surprisingly grotty panelled basement with packets of Walkers crisps and plastic jellies), she busies herself with white china pots and milk jugs while Rhodes Boyson stares rheumily into space and Roy Hattersley gives her a wide berth. Within seconds of sitting down, she seizes my copy of her new novel, saying, "I expect you want me to sign this." Looking round for inspiration, she lays it down on the Evening Standard, over the lower half of Harriet Harman's face on the front page, to demonstrate that the beleaguered shadow health spokesperson has clearly been weeping. Doesn't Edwina feel a certain sympathy for Harriet's point of view, going for the maternal choice over the party's directive?

Does she hell. "She should never have taken her son to look at a school which her party would abolish tomorrow," she says firmly. "And you cannot in the same breath say, 'I am totally opposed to selection but I'm going to send my kid to a selective school'." Indignation begins to seethe in Mrs Currie. "She said it in the paper this morning, in the Daily Mail. 'I am totally opposed to selection'. Oh no you're not, Miss Harman ..."

Edwina herself went to just the sort of school under discussion, the Liverpool Institute for Girls, "which took their pupils from right across a city of three-quarters of a million pupils in open competition - I came second in the whole year's intake - but what the city fathers were trying to do was create an elite to serve the city." She is now a governor of Repton School. Her childhood in Liverpool was stiffly orthodox but upwardly mobile. Her father, Simon Cohen, a tailor, was a Thatcherite avant la lettre. "We owned our own house and a car and our own business, while most of our neighbours were tenants. They didn't have that kind of money. They didn't plan in the same way. My father would make remarks ..."

His remarks on religion especially irritated his daughter. "What he said we should do was not what he did. For instance, he said we should keep to all the rules of orthodox Judaism, but he didn't believe in God. So why keep the rules, Dad? Because otherwise [this is Dad's reply] there won't be a community. But [she comes right back] if a community depends on arbitrary rules, Dad, it isn't a community ..." Father and daughter parted company when Edwina married Ray Currie, a goy accountant, and never spoke to each other again. "Me and my Dad, we were as stubborn as each other," is all she'll say about this tragic dislocation. He died "about 20 years ago".

When did she start having opinions? "As soon as I could talk. I was talking at nine or 10 months, long before I could walk. My daughters [Susan and Debbie, 15 and 21] are the same." Was it a solitary childhood? "I was perfectly happy with my own company, talking to myself, making up stories about these two characters I called Mimigee and Parmigee, chattering away in a corner and moving my dolls around ..."

To hear of the impresario side of her character is no surprise. Mrs Currie is always keen to introduce you to her public selves, the prize-winner, the Stakhanovite worker, the misunderstood genius whose advice is perilously ignored ("A lot of what I do, John," she confides, "is not very public. I do a lot of quiet work, where my experience and advice might assist, but where my public face would not be helpful"). And, as well as being the most astonishingly bossy woman I have ever met, she is very theatrical. In the one-sided debate that is her conversation, her face goes through a range of attitudes, tight little smiles, radiant smirks and full-headlight sincerity. She can tilt her head rhetorically sideways to an angle that would defeat a giraffe. Her arguments are briskly itemised lists of points, ticked off like a list of groceries. She is a handsome, horsey woman whose best feature is her eyes - twin black marbles last seen in the face of the robot that Katherine Ross turned into in The Stepford Wives - and whose crimson jacket, chestnut pompadour and string of pearls are arrayed like armour. Only a seasonal cold-sore on her upper lip, the size and consistency of a flattened oyster, disturbs the martial maquillage.

Her new novel, A Woman's Place, is, coincidentally, a rather ill-tempered feat of revenge and revisionism by Mrs Currie's alter ego, Elaine Stalker, the gorgeous pouting blonde MP at the centre of A Parliamentary Affair. In this sequel, Elaine becomes a junior minister in a post-Major (and still-Tory, since you ask) government's new Department of Health, Welfare and the Family. Her boss is a bluff and flabby, beer-drinking Yorkshireman called Ted; his PPS a skirt-chasing, money-grabbing degenerate called Derek Harrison. Any resemblance you might infer between them and Messrs Clarke and Mellor, her boss and departmental sidekick at the time of l'affaire d'oeuf salmonelle, is circumvented by having both men appear as themselves, along with a dozen other parliamentarians who are given sharp digs in the ribs as they walk by: Tim Renton is "one of the least competent" chief whips of modern times, Alan Clark "did not believe in free trade, except in love and armaments" and Nicholas Soames resembles "a large pear". Elaine Stalker, the Edwina clone, actually does very little in the novel except to have her loveliness, sparkling intellect etc remarked on by all the characters, get kidnapped by a care-in-the-community killer (the Stalker stalked, you see) and lose her job when she tries to stop the closure of a hospital. The book thus reruns the tale of Mrs Currie's fall from grace in the poster paints of hindsight: Brave MP Sticks to Principles, Is Deserted by Colleagues and Forced to Resign ... It is by no means a bad read, despite the incessant rain of cliche (at one point a character appears to "draw himself up to his full height" in the back of a taxi). Mrs Currie has become adept at intercutting storylines and offering a hundred little cliff-hangers in as many pages, soap opera-style. And one sub-plot, about a reluctant homosexual, Anthony York, who is hounded to death, produces a genuinely interesting character based on the Tory government's most extraordinary skeleton-in-the-closet.

"I knew Stephen Milligan very well," says Mrs Currie. "At least I thought I knew him. We were at university together. I give Anthony in the book a speech that I heard Stephen making, and I remember thinking, as I listened to this haughty young man, 'My God, I hope you've got no skeletons in your cupboard, chum ...' But the question that came into my mind when he died was: supposing he has and doesn't know it? What happens if someone, say a Tory minister - bit of a puritan, bit of a prig - sets himself very high standards, makes speeches about them, then starts to wonder if he's gay or into S&M and begins to discover horrible things about himself that he can't cope with. What kind of voyage of exploration is that?"

One does not get the impression, at these moments, that there is anything insincere about Mrs Currie's concern: as with her work in support of gay men, one-parent families, Derby Asians and women on the lower rungs of politics, her instincts seem laudably libertarian. (Even when coming on as a handcuffs-waving right-winger, at the Tory conference in 1981, she was, it seems, only acting. "That handcuffs thing," she says, "all I was doing was saying, 'Can I be a Conservative Party candidate, please?'.") But that no-nonsense, let's-hit-the-Scotch tone of hers, that runs like an obbligato through everything she says, starts to grate after a while. Bossiness characterises most of the sexual relationships in the new novel. "I've got goose bumps. Shove over," is how Elaine's daughter, Karen, tries to seduce Anthony. "Come on," says virginal Fred Laidlaw when finally persuading Karen to sleep with him. "C'mon! Don't be a stick-in-the-mud," enjoins a sexy raver when persuading Derek Harrison to smoke a joint. "I think it would be wonderful," orders George, Elaine's ex-army lover, "if you would take the rest of those pretty undergarments off and roll over on to your front", prior to the sex-with-chocolate-sauce scene that will make the book a bestseller (the dust-jacket pre-emptively claims it already is). "The chocolate sauce is on sale at British Home Stores," remarks the ever-practical author, "complete with a body-brush."

I suggest that at least one taxi-driver would be disappointed to find there are fewer sexy high jinks in the new novel than in its predecessor. "But the subject is different," says Edwina. "The first one was about sexual misbehaviour in this place, which made me cross because the chaps were treating the women as chattels. My instinct was that it all had to come out. I didn't realise" - she smiles - "that the Government, with the back-to-basics fiasco, was going to be so obliging. The new book is much more about woman's position in a broader sense - not just on her back, but trying to get to the top. I wanted to ring bells for women in business, in the City, in banking, for any women who ever thought, my God, do I bring a sexual harassment case, do I sue for constructive dismissal, because I'm not getting anywhere ..."

On the subject of her boss, she is eloquently exasperated. "John Major is a delightful person. He's fine, good, charming and nice to everybody, but it's distressing when you realise he's doing something less well than he might. When an issue comes up in Cabinet he'll ask for views, end up with six different ones and say, 'Let's put it on the agenda for next week.' John thinks he's a coachman with four horses pulling in different directions and his job is to keep them on a single path, wherever it's leading. I think he should be the lead horse. Because if the lead horse steps out smartly, giving a clear impression that he knows where he's going, the others will fall in behind him ..."

Mrs Currie, a lead-horse manque if there ever was one, may have a tough time at the next general election. Her 1992 majority was 4,500, a figure since whittled alarmingly down by boundary changes. What can she offer her constituents beyond a PM she does not respect and a candidate who is most famous as a bonk-busting scribbler? "I can offer them what they've had for a long time. I live in the parish and they come and ask for help on every issue under the sun." And she is off again, itemising this campaign or that issue, where Currie-style common sense prevailed over feeble-mindedness. What is her plan if she gets in? "Write another book, make some money and pursue issues that interest me so that, when I evaluate my own achievements, there are one or two things I'm proud of ..."

Such honesty. Let us hope the world that is Mrs Currie's rumpus room will benefit from her bossy housekeeping for a while yet. It is hard to imagine what this irritating but clever woman would be like without politics to soak up her energy - to imagine her back in the corner, chattering to herself, moving her fictional dolls around.

Edwina's pearls

Descriptive: "... Elaine Stalker. Her image floated into his mind and he stifled a groan. Her blond hair; the lovely, flashing smile, the carefree, cheeky air which brought her features so alive. The dancing hazel eyes whose mockery during foreplay could make him gasp with excitement. The things she did, dammit ... "

Bitchy: "Fiona glanced around. Some ministers made no impact whatever on their rooms, apart from the obligatory family photo. Others showed off shamelessly ... David Mellor, as Heritage Minister, installed an elegant glass-topped coffee table, the better to display large illustrated books, including the latest publication of whichever great personage was about to pay him a visit so that he could get it signed."

Realistic: " 'If everybody behaved according to the rules, they'd have nowt to fear from top investigative journalists like yourself, Jim,' Thwaite slapped his deputy on the back."

Narrative: "Several patients were up for review under the Mental Health Act. Born into a nation where mentally ill criminals regularly faced the electric chair or a lethal injection after years on death row, Lachlan was impressed by the compassionate efforts of Europeans to distinguish the potentially treatable from the sane but culpable. Yet it was a risky matter."

Erotic: "His love-making when it came was strong but measured and sure, as if he knew himself very well, and considerate of her. It was not until later, after they had rested a little, that she moved suddenly and flung hungry arms around his naked body: then a fire seemed let loose in him and he took her again with great driving power, until they were truly together, calling to each other in the night, two lonely people whose capacity for love had never faltered."

Critical: "Mr Major, on the other hand, had never challenged anybody's complacency. His name, indeed, had become synonymous with caution. Whereas ministerial office under the blessed Margaret could only have been the experience of a lifetime, service under her successor, especially in a lowly post, would have been a dreadful anticlimax."

What she says

He certainly doesn't see women as a separate species (of John Major).

I'm not a theoretician. I'd much rather tap into the culture of real people.

We do warn people that most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella (as Junior Health Minister, December 1988).

You don't realise what those 15-hour days do to your personality, sex life and children (shortly after her resignation as Junior Health Minister in 1988).

It's hypocritical to expect people under tremendous pressure to behave impeccably. Whom you sleep with on a Saturday night has nothing to do with how well you do your job. I don't think any less of David because he had an undignified fling with a 6ft actress (on David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha, 1993).

It doesn't match with anything that doctors now say, that psychiatrists now say. They all reckon that by the time a lad is 16, he is old enough to make up his own mind. It doesn't make sense to turn him into a criminal at 16 if he happens to be gay (on the the age of consent for gay men, February 1994).

If you are going to go into a campaign determined to win, it does not help to have a thumping big tax increase on almost the day you start (apportioning some of the blame on the Government for her defeat in the Euro elections, 1994).

My sex life is pretty good, thank God. You just wake up in the morning and feel like it. (Evening Standard, 1995).

I'd look like Elle MacPherson if I could. But on the whole I'd rather keep my brains (Evening Standard, 1995).

What they say

Her mouth has already cost the taxpayer pounds 5m (David Clark, shadow agriculture minister, of her salmonella outburst).

In the past five years she has undergone a sea change, but now more of the real Edwina is emerging. She has formidable self-confidence and some charm (an anonymous MP, the Independent, 1994).

She is gifted in almost every quality except that of being a subordinate (John Biffen, MP).

I loathe her because she has a capacity for insensitivity paralleled only by Attila the Hun that has given me cause to want to assault her in a most unpleasant way. She is capable of put-downs that would fry an omelette at 50 yards. Yet she is also intelligent, creative and occasionally brave: the kind of person no society can do without (an anonymous MP, the Independent, 1994).

Scott Hughes