Beasts vs Belles: Sugar's arrival adds to women ex-ministers' complaints

He has just been given a peerage by Gordon Brown and came to the rescue of the Government in his new role as "enterprise tsar". And tonight, he will select his new apprentice from an all-woman final.

But Sir Alan Sugar's appointment last week in the Government's chaotic reshuffle has raised eyebrows among female ministers because of the tycoon's comments on women in the workplace.

Given Caroline Flint's vitriolic blast against the Prime Minister for operating a "two-tier Cabinet" and using women ministers as "window dressing", the timing of soon-to-be Lord Sugar's elevation to the peerage was unfortunate. Two years ago, the entrepreneur and star of BBC1's The Apprentice said: "We have maternity laws where people are entitled to have too much. Everything has gone too far."

Last year he added that as an employer he would like to be able to ask women at interviews: "Are you planning to get married and have any children?" adding that one way out would be: "Just don't employ them."

Downing Street sources sought to play down the remarks last night, pointing out that the final four contestants in this year's Apprentice were all women. But the presence of Lord Sugar in the Government will fuel the sense that Labour women are being pitted against the unreconstructed beasts of Labour politics.

Supporters of Mr Brown have claimed the moves against the Prime Minister last week were fuelled by "WAGs" or "Women Against Gordon". This is denied by those involved, who insisted they are just friends who socialise together. Ms Flint, who tap-dances with her friend and former ministerial colleague Hazel Blears in the Division Belles, appeared to be losing her battle, with MPs and Labour figures claiming her appearance in a women's magazine just weeks ago in glamorous dresses and high heels had diminished her credibility.

Ms Flint was dismissed by one cabinet aide as a "clown"; another called her comments "astonishing" and a "bit rich" given her photo-shoot.

The Sun newspaper, not widely known for its feminism, splashed yesterday with the headlines "A stiletto in the back" and "Heel hath no fury, Gordon". But Ms Flint did have one supporter – the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who said she looked "completely amazing" in the photos, adding on her blog: "Totally beautiful in that black widow 'I'll eat you' kind of way."

However, Ms Dorries added: "The red dress, shoes, stylist, hairdresser and makeup artists along with the professional photographers and lighting technician made sure the media had something eye-catching for the front pages this weekend. Phew, thank goodness for that little coincidence!!

"If anyone tries to tell you that the Blears/Flint double act wasn't planned, staged and executed in a way only women know how, then laugh out loud. They did what women do best and they did it with style."

A No10 spokesman said: "Alan Sugar is the right man for the job. He brings with him real experience of setting up and running businesses."

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