Jane Merrick: Let's take Dave's advice and move on

He may be haughty but he's not sexist

Share
Related Topics

There was something predictable and depressing about the reaction to David Cameron's "Calm down, dear" rebuke to Angela Eagle in the Commons last week. Sexist! Patronising! Insulting! The piping from some, mainly women, Labour MPs quickly turned into a full-blown symphony about sexism in Westminster.

I cannot agree that either the remark itself or the Prime Minister were sexist. But on the wider issue, after working 10 years as a journalist in the Commons, I feel the image of the gentleman's club, wheeled out again last week, is no longer relevant.

Mr Cameron's put-down was patronising – but put-downs at Prime Minister's Questions are supposed to be. He once deployed the same phrase against David Miliband. So, if he had pulled his punch against Angela Eagle, wouldn't he be guilty of condescension, as if a woman cannot take the same jibe as a man? And wasn't Ed Balls equally patronising, in demanding an apology from Mr Cameron, as though he were in a pub asking another bloke, "Are you looking at my wife?"

Was this Mr Cameron revealing his true colours, as an Old Etonian who believes women should return to the kitchen? Despite the pictures of Samantha Cameron in a pinny, making cakes last week for the Downing Street royal wedding party, the Prime Minister's wife is one of three strong, independent-minded women that he uses for advice and support. The other two are his press secretary Gabby Bertin, one of his most trusted confidantes, and Catherine Fall, his deputy chief of staff, to whom he is also incredibly close. He believes, say friends, you cannot have a "360-degree view of life without having 50 per cent of the population represented in your inner circle".

On a personal level, Mr Cameron talks to women and men in the same way. The same cannot be said of his two predecessors. Off-camera, Tony Blair had a forced, unnaturally flirtatious way about him, while Gordon Brown seemed to find it difficult to talk to women at all. Mr Cameron is neither flirtatious nor uncomfortable around women. Smooth and sometimes haughty, yes, but this manner is applied to men and women alike.

As for sexism in Westminster, I accept it remains in some corners of the Palace, but it is fading. Over the past decade, I can recall only two or three examples of off-colour remarks, which were more amusing than horrifying. A Tory MP once, rather sweetly, told me my legs made him "proud to be British", while a Labour Cabinet minister fell over a chair in his office as he rushed over, blushing, to tell me it was "so lovely to see" me. But, with each election bringing a younger generation of MPs to mill around the Portcullis House atrium, the atmosphere in the Commons in 2011 is more like the offices of Google than the stuffy rooms of the RAC Club. Female and male MPs who have families are finding the hours friendlier.

To complain that the Commons is too shouty, too male, is to suggest that women cannot cut it in this environment. Yet Bessie Braddock could hold her own against Winston Churchill 60 years ago. And Harriet Harman – who used to appeal for more consensual debates in the Chamber – was best deputising for Gordon Brown at PMQ when she deployed humorous and withering tickings-off against her opponent William Hague.

To jump on every remark as sexism devalues the equality argument and risks turning Westminster women into victims. Female MPs should fight the real battles – on equal pay and the effect that government cuts will have on the work-life balance – and brush off the silliness of a rather poor Michael Winner impression.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot