MPs on a power trip, girls and the Princess Syndrome, women in politics and a-mazing generations


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The Independent Online

There's an awful phrase politicians use all the time to describe voters: "ordinary people". As though we citizens of Britain lead bland, dull, unsatisfying lives in our pebble-dashed Keep-the-Aspidistra-Flying homes, our net curtains filtering the incandescence and excitement of Westminster. Occasionally, our ordinariness is punctuated by the extraordinary – a sinkhole in Hemel Hempstead, or an earthquake in Barnstaple; then it's back to bland. It isn't true, of course, because we are all extraordinary. But I suspect that many (though not all) MPs like to repeat the "ordinary people" mantra to differentiate themselves from constituents – they don't like to be called out of touch, but they like to feel it. The power trip is understandable: many thousands of people have chosen this person to represent them.

Part of this cult of the extraordinary in politics is to impose punishing routines on their own lives, including, it seems, eating like supermodels. So, we learn, George Osborne has gone on the 5:2 diet, fasting for two days a week. I've never tried this, but I hear it has mixed results – for some, it's caused weight loss, for others, weight gain (presumably because after a day of consuming just 600 calories all you want to do is gorge, George). Does fasting give you clarity of thought, as some claim, or just a lot of grumpiness as you recall the days of plump Byron Hamburgers and gaze enviously at Freya's cat bowl? For a man who is busy trying to sort out the finances of us ordinary people, it's a bit of a high-risk strategy, surely?

I can understand Osborne's motivation, because image – and with it, exercise and dieting – is everything in modern politics. Tony Blair, it could be argued, started this obsession. As prime minister, he installed a mini-gym in the Downing Street basement, and, when visiting foreign leaders, would request three hours of post-flight exercise time before his first meeting – at which he would turn up refreshed, lean and clear-headed. I now wonder, in the light of his advice to Rebekah Brooks, whether part of that routine was to take sleeping pills on the flight. It would certainly take some pounding on the cross-trainer to work off their effects. At lunch, Blair has been known to turn down the "ordinary" food that's on offer and instead painstakingly slice an apple into 16ths to make it last the hour and a half. All of this seems like very hard work. But, to quote his advice to Brooks, it would certainly make you "tough up".

It is not just hardcore dieting. It has emerged that ministers in Angela Merkel's government sleep in their offices to cram as much work as they can into their days. Three of the four ministers doing this are women, who claim it is so they can get more out of their work-life balance – putting in extra hours during working days to justify the occasional afternoon pick-up from kindergarten. One of them, Ursula von der Leyen, is Germany's first female defence minister, as well as being a mother of seven, so she is clearly a role model. I can see she is sending a strong message about diligence. But I am not sure sleeping away from home is the answer to the ever-tricky work-life balance. Sleeping in the office is no way to get a clear head for work. And for any parent, surely it is reassuring for a child to see you when they wake up – even if it is a fleeting and chaotic hour before work?

But when politicians dare to be anything less than extraordinary, they are criticised. So, when Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, took paternity leave last weekend after the birth of his daughter, Eleanor, there were cries of outrage. He should, his critics claimed, have stayed in the office at a time when Britain was still grappling with the floods crisis. Only "ordinary" parents take time off, was the suggestion. Never mind that Davey was keeping in touch with the office, and was not expected at any emergency Cobra meetings. With the mantle of power comes sacrifice, yet wouldn't it be more refreshing if our politicians were not so keen on a life less ordinary?

Not in the pink

At some point in the near future, I am expecting Princess Syndrome to engulf my three-and-a-half year old daughter. It happens to most girls, it seems – spurred on by classmates, TV, pink toys, books. It is difficult to avoid. But at the moment, she loves moss. She picks it off brick walls in our road and brings it home to look at. She refuses to wear dresses, unless it's for a party, insisting on trousers or jeans.

Part of me feels disappointed with the dress thing – if only because jeans every day is so boring – but part of me feels proud that she is, for now, resisting the weight of expectation from society for her to be pink/princessy/feminine. It is for this reason that I felt let down by Helen Grant, the minister for both sport and equalities, suggesting that girls who are worried that some sports are "unfeminine" can try cheerleading, rollerskating ("wearing … beautiful socks with sequins") or rounders. Grant should be concerned that girls are worried about doing traditional sports such as football or tennis, but her answer – particularly as a former judo champion – should have been to reassure them that there is nothing unfeminine about sport. This is what I will tell my daughter. There are very few questions in life to which cheerleading is the right answer.

Labour's lost leader

Philip Hammond's slip-up on Question Time, repeatedly mistaking Liz Kendall for Rachel Reeves, provoked another round of claims that the Tories have a "woman problem", which in turn provoked the counter-argument that Labour has never had a female leader.

Hazel Blears' announcement that she will retire at the next election is a reminder that, had she not become one of the faces of the expenses scandal, she could have made an excellent Labour leader. Her "ordinary" background and tough approach draws comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. Blears was a member of Parliament's first and only tap-dancing troupe, the Division Belles. Sadly, all of the original line-up have either lost their seats or are standing down, except Caroline Flint and Fiona Mactaggart. Many of the Division Belles were Blairites. Flint confirms the troupe no longer performs.

Round in circles

In a moment of half-term madness last week, I found myself navigating the maze at Hampton Court Palace for the first time. Half of our party (the children) loved the idea of getting lost, because "the fun" was about trying to find our way out, even if it took hours. The other half (the adults) found it infuriating and just wanted to leave. I wondered what lay behind our different approaches: was there some deep philosophical meaning? Only when driving home, as I got lost in the Kingston one-way system and went around the same roundabout four times, did I find the answer.