The last of Labour's old girls

Margaret Beckett is a socialist and a feminist - but she's not making a big fuss about it. By Rachel Sylvester and Marie Woolf
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY BEFORE Christmas, Margaret Beckett hosted a party in her grace-and-favour apartment on Whitehall. She was the perfect society hostess, in an immaculate pink suit, her nails beautifully manicured, pouring drinks for her guests.

Midway through the evening, Mrs Beckett flung open elegant double doors and ushered the astonished guests into her bedroom. "This," she said, waving her arms past the carefully-plumped ministerial pillows, a pair of her husband Leo's slippers and some weighing scales, "is all yours".

There are not many Cabinet ministers who would show journalists their duvet. But Margaret Beckett is uneasy with the trappings of power. While Jack Cunningham swans around on Concorde, she takes her own muesli to France in a caravan; when Tony Blair sips champagne with Liam Gallagher at Downing Street, she is happier with a videoed episode of Casualty.

The Leader of the Commons does not quite fit into New Labour's New Britain. Although she was once temporarily leader of the Labour Party, Mrs Beckett is no longer a member of the inner circle - she was moved from the Department of Trade and Industry to make way for Peter Mandelson. Now she is described as a "safe pair of hands" who this week will begin fronting the campaigns for the local and European elections, arguably a poisoned chalice as she admits Labour is certain to suffer heavy losses.

She is an old fashioned Labour politician, driven by social conscience, who still describes herself as a socialist and a feminist (both taboo words in the Blairite vocabulary). "Just before John [Smith] died he said to me `what's the point of coming into politics if it's not to speak up for people who don't find it easy to speak up for themselves?' " she says.

New Labour has done everything it can to obliterate the memory of the party's last leader - its headquarters is no longer named after him and there are no plans to commemorate the anniversary of his death next month. Although Mrs Beckett is careful not to criticise Tony Blair, it is clear from her body language that she is hurt. "It may be that in a few years time there will come a particular round-number anniversary where we could mark it."

She is the wrong image for Mr Blair's beautiful young country: neither a football-loving lad nor an identikit Blair babe. She is proudly feminine, travelling all the way to a favourite shop in Blackpool to buy stiletto heels. When her press officer announces she has "a huge ladder in my tights", Beckett chimes with girlish solidarity: "Don't worry I have one too, but no one can see it." It is touching how fondly she speaks of her husband Leo, her former party agent, whom she married in 1979. At a benefit to raise money for Cancer Relief last year, she sang his favourite song but was "horrified" when the television cameras turned up and broadcast the performance on prime-time news.

This is a public image which the guarded and careful Margaret would hate to present. She sees New Labour's presentation of its women MPs as thrusting clones in power suits, as damaging to women. The label "Blair babes" is "awful", she says. "It was distasteful publicity which was damaging to the Government and to women in political life." Mrs Beckett is convinced that she has suffered in the laddish worlds of the Labour Party and the media because she is female. She thinks she would have had more chance of winning the leadership election if she had been a man.

"It's a problem for anyone who the lads don't think is one of the lads... I think there have been times in my career definitely when I have suffered from it," she says.

Her move from the Department of Trade and Industry was widely viewed as a "snub" and, privately, Beckett is said to be "livid". To us she will say, with a glance at her aide, only that she was "slightly sorry" to leave. Nevertheless she has risen further than almost all her Labour predecessors. "I don't think I can complain too much," she says. "I have after all been the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, I have been the Leader of the Labour party, however briefly and I am happy to be in a Labour Cabinet. Too many tears are not appropriate."