Standing up for Jo Swinson, the pandas ready to take the Tory crown and why turning 40 should be avoided

I am a feminist, but do pregnant women really have to pretend we don't need to sit down when a seat is offered on the Tube?


On the train the other evening I noticed a woman, pale and exhausted and sighing heavily, standing not far from me in the middle of the carriage. The train was packed, and it was only three stops later, when she was offered a seat (I was standing, too), that I realised she was pregnant – I would say about four or five months. She had spent about 10 minutes trying, and failing, to get noticed. None of this surprised me, however, as I got a similar response when I was pregnant – even when I was the size of (and as grumpy as) a baby rhino. Neither was it surprising to see Jo Swinson, the seven-months-pregnant Equalities and Business Minister, standing during PMQs for 20 minutes without any other MP offering her a seat.

An aide to Swinson confirmed that she was not offered a place, but went on to say that it was "sexist" to suggest that she should have been offered one; that it is offensive to suggest that being pregnant makes a woman somehow physically incapacitated. Although the MP herself later tweeted insisting it was not sexist, the row had already been triggered.

I am a feminist, but this is not a feminist issue. Do pregnant women really have to pretend we don't need to sit down when it's offered? Are other mothers-to-be, like my fellow passenger on the train the other day, supposed to brave it out and refuse the offer of a seat because it is "sexist"? When you have a child, the guilt comes in hard and fast from all directions. You are made to feel that your child's nappies are the biggest thing ruining the environment. People hate you when your buggy gets in the way in shops. If you struggle to breastfeed, the guilt police scorn you when you put a bottle teat into your baby's mouth in public. You feel guilty about losing touch with work, then feel more guilty when you enjoy the peace and quiet of returning to your desk months later. The months of pregnancy and having a baby are wonderful. But we should not, for heaven's sake, feel guilty about wanting to take the not inconsiderable weight off our feet.

I was 36 when I was pregnant – three years older than Swinson. Maybe those three years make all the difference. But at seven months I needed all the sitting down I could get. What I failed to do was listen to all the advice telling me to get plenty of rest before the birth. I didn't, and never caught up. It is Swinson's choice to remain standing in a chamber with hundreds of seats. But she should not be outraged that people are outraged on her behalf.

Cameron's constituency duty

There is a strict rule that MPs deal with the problems of their own constituents. If you are in trouble, you can go to see your MP at their weekly surgery. Phil Ball, one of the Greenpeace activists being held in Russia over piracy charges, is unable to attend in person, of course, but he might be forgiven for hoping that his own MP would be doing what he could to help lobby the Russian government to free him. Mr Ball's MP is David Cameron, as the Prime Minister himself revealed in the Commons. It should be already a priority for the PM to demand that President Putin should release the six British nationals and 24 others from these trumped-up charges. But as the local MP, there is a double responsibility. Angela Merkel made a stern phone call to Putin demanding that they be released – and there aren't even any Germans among the Arctic 30.

Old pandas hold their own

The next Conservative leadership contest became clearer last week. We Westminster types have been obsessing about the stars of the 2010 Tory intake who might inherit the crown when Cameron steps down, but watching George Osborne and Boris Johnson on their tandem trade mission to China, like two giant Tory pandas on an exchange trip, was a glimpse of the future. The blond panda marvelled at the Asian economy from a helicopter, the dark panda wore a hard hat and hi-vis jacket as he toured a Chinese nuclear plant. Only Theresa May was missing from the picture. But the message was clear – these beasts are not ready to hand over control to the next generation for quite some time.

Free from teaching skills

The parents of children at the Al-Madinah free school in Derby, rated as "inadequate" by Ofsted inspectors, must be going through agony with all the uncertainty of the project, just as they must be aghast at Pimlico Primary, where the headteacher with no teaching qualifications was replaced earlier this month. At a third free school, the Discovery New School in Crawley, the head has stepped down after being criticised by Ofsted for failing to have the skills and knowledge to lead a school. It is beyond belief that unqualified or under-qualified teachers could be allowed to be in charge of the education of children. Imagine if this were copied in the NHS – with untrained doctors treating patients, or in the justice system – with anyone without qualifications but strong feelings about crime and courts allowed to sit as a judge. It does not bear thinking about, and should never have been entertained for our children's education.

Keeping Omar Sharif at bay

I turn 40 in a little over a month's time, and I am trying not to panic. At the moment, 40 is a tiny speck on the horizon, indeterminate and distant, but rapidly approaching, like Omar Sharif galloping on a camel through the desert haze towards Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. At the age of 39, according to research, people are given a "health wake-up call" – a moment when they start to worry about all the smoking, drinking and bad diets earlier in life, and go on a radical health kick as they approach the big Four O.

For me, the fags went years ago, the boozing has tailed off with motherhood. It is only the coffee and chocolate that remain, and I need that to deal with the stress of impending middle age. Two-thirds of people, according to this study, regret not making more effort to be healthy when they were younger. Yet I belong to the third who do not regret living dangerously – what a dull youth I would have had otherwise. Anyway, I have a plan to stop the camel and its rider dressed in black: come November, I have decided not to turn 40 but be simply 39a. And I won't be affronted if someone offers me their seat on the Tube.

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