Joan Smith: Frumpy outsmarts elegant in our warped politics

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It was red! It was shiny! It was short! Listening to the chorus of outrage about Caroline Flint's fashion shoot in a women's magazine, I began to wonder if the former Europe minister had posed looking as sultry as Dita von Teese. In fact, as someone sniffily pointed out, she wore chain-store clothing for the photographs, which were taken some time before she resigned, to accompany an interview about her life as a politician.

On Woman's Hour last week, Flint told Jenni Murray – normally the most courteous of presenters, but on this occasion quivering with puritan disapproval – that she was trying to connect with an audience which doesn't take much notice of politicians.

The relationship between women politicians and the Prime Minister is still at the top of the agenda a week and a half after Hazel Blears – suddenly repentant, as of two days ago – joined Jacqui Smith in leaving the Cabinet.

Flint has been altogether more robust than the former Communities secretary, even though both women have scotched the claim that they were involved in a plot against the Prime Minister: Women Against Gordon, as the media inevitably dubbed them. (I am willing to allow this label, by the way, only if male MPs who don't protest undying love for the prime minister are in future referred to as MAGs.) Blears's je-regrette-tout performance on Friday was excruciating to watch, calling to mind someone who has just emerged from a serious bout of political re-education. I couldn't help wondering what pressure she'd been under to produce such a startling change of heart.

Like Jane Kennedy, the Farming minister who gave up her job on Monday, Flint said she resigned after the Prime Minister questioned her loyalty. She has been mocked for her remark about being used as "female window-dressing", but as I understood it, she was saying not just that Brown likes to have a pretty face in his government but that he puts women there to display his credentials to gender equality. Then he marginalises them behind the scenes.

Flint isn't alone in disliking the briefings that No 10 habitually use to destabilise ministers and backbenchers, but her defence of her actions is all the more impressive because she has broken the unwritten 11th commandment for women: Thou shalt run thyself down at all times.

A very English puritanism is at work here. Generations of women have struggled to assert that there's no contradiction between being beautiful and clever, and they've got much further on the Continent than they have in this country.

Last month I ran into Ségolène Royal at a conference in Athens and couldn't resist rushing up to tell her how chic she looked in her orange dress and jacket. Royal lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential election two years ago, but she's campaigning to be the Socialist candidate again in 2012. She's a beautiful woman, totally at ease with herself, and in France hardly anyone bats an eyelid.

Royal even defended one of Sarkozy's ministers, Rachida Dati, when she went back to work in January only days after giving birth. Dati was shredded by the female misogynists at the Daily Mail – their dedication to doing other women down knows no bounds – but Royal realised that Dati was desperately trying to hang on to her job and rejected the opportunity to belittle a glamorous rival.

If only we were as grown-up as the French: in this weird country, you'd better be badly dressed and self-deprecating if you want to be taken seriously as a woman at Westminster.

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