David Cameron seemed genuinely chastened by Harriet Harman at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, when the acting Labour leader accused him of “gloating” about the Conservative election victory. Cameron spent the rest of Wednesday’s session showering MPs from all sides of the house with love and magnanimity, putting on his glasses to look more serious and less Flashman. This exchange prompted some speculation in Labour circles about how Cameron would deal with a woman elected as Labour leader on 12 September. Would he adopt a more conciliatory tone than he had with Ed Miliband, MPs mused? Given how Cameron reacted to Harman as if she’d put a stick through the spokes of his bicycle, causing him to wobble off course, does the Prime Minister, went the argument, know how to handle other forthright women such as Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall?
The wrong sort of gender politics is gripping the Labour leadership, deputy leadership and mayoral contests, and I wish it wasn’t. Until 8pm on Friday, when Mary Creagh withdrew her candidacy, women outnumbered men in the race to succeed Miliband. This “domination” (hollow laugh) by women has caused some Labour men to fret about their future. There is hushed talk, without any sense of irony, about needing “balance” in Labour’s top team should a woman be elected leader – even though female MPs across the Commons are outnumbered by their male counterparts by more than two to one. Can you imagine what would happen if 50 per cent of MPs were women? There would be calls for male MPs to be classified on the international Red List of endangered species, the poor Homo parliamentariens expensiens under the “critically endangered” column. It was even suggested to me that Rachel Reeves, the former Bank of England economist who spent much of her first term as an MP in a shadow Treasury or economic role, could not be shadow chancellor if Kendall became leader because they look too similar – because they have long brown hair and once, on Question Time, Philip Hammond got them mixed up.
Guys, politics is not Guess Who?, the classic 1970s game where each character has to be different to the next in order to narrow down the answer. Your average voter is not generally in need of a trip to Specsavers. These two women do actually look different. Admittedly, I was surprised when Reeves backed Andy Burnham for leader, presumably with an agreement that she would be his shadow chancellor if he won, unlike many of her 2010 intake colleagues who have nominated Kendall. If Kendall wins and selects Chuka Umunna as shadow chancellor, as we have speculated on page six of this paper, it would be because she thinks he can do the job, not because she fears her leadership being mistaken for a lookalikes agency.
As long as they were the right people for the job – and that is crucial – there should be nothing wrong with Labour having a female leader, deputy leader and shadow chancellor. In the end, this is unlikely to happen because of a sort of “chalk and cheese” (rather than “his and hers” effect) in the minds of Labour figures who are war-gaming the party’s future.
I understand there is a rather surprising and counter-intuitive centripetal force gathering for Kendall the Blairite as leader and Tom Watson, who honed his spoke-troubling skills at Gordon Brown’s elbow and has the Blue Labour grassroots appeal. Watson could be the John Prescott figure to Kendall’s Blair. What is more surprising is that both arch Blairites, some of whom haven’t forgotten the way Watson orchestrated the 2006 curry house plot against their master, and Watson’s allies are suggesting this unlikely combination. Of course, beyond getting to the threshold of 35 nominations, MPs matter less in these contests, but this scenario is certainly gaining ground.
Women choosing men
Despite me wishing for the best person for each role, I must take my hat off to the 28 Labour MPs who have nominated male candidates in both the leadership and deputy leadership contests. It is not for want of women – in the leadership race, there are two out of four, and in the deputy contest, four out of six. Of the 28 MPs who are backing a men-only top team, eight of them are women, including Lucy Powell and Lisa Nandy.
Wealthy but dull
The Bilderberg conference, which is taking place in Austria this weekend, is supposed to be a shadowy gathering of the world’s elite – including George Osborne and Ed Balls – but, thanks to Twitter, not so much. It’s hard to get het up about a conference of conspiracy when its delegates are tweeting the hashtag #Bilderberg. Finland’s finance minister Alexander Stubb tweeted this from inside the gathering on Friday: “An excellent day of brainstorming and networking at #Bilderberg. Learning, interacting, observing. #braingymnastics”. What next, is Osborne going to start Periscoping from a breakout session on productivity? I’m starting to think the organisers have such tight security to create a sense of mystery that isn’t really there. Isn’t it just like Davos without the celebrities and skiing? Or, as I suspect, more like the AGM of an international accountants’ confederation?
Osborne’s night off
Last Wednesday, Bank of England governor Mark Carney delivered a fired-up speech at the Mansion House in which he declared war on City cowboys and rogue traders, warning them that the age of irresponsibility is over. Two evenings earlier, I spotted him at the Royal Opera House enjoying a performance of La Bohème which features, among other things, a bunch of men who are irresponsible with money. The key difference between City traders and Puccini’s Parisian layabouts is, of course, that the latter group are penniless.
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