Joan Smith: Macho politicians are turning back the clock

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The Independent Online

I've heard many things about Gordon Brown but no one's ever suggested that he beats his wife or tortures spaniels. Heathcliff, to whom the Prime Minister has allowed himself to be compared, does both these things in Wuthering Heights, a novel so savage that one contemporary reviewer suggested it was the product of a dyspeptic digestive system.

It may be that Mr Brown was thinking of the film and stage versions of Emily Bronte's novel, which tend to present it as a vapid love story; connoisseurs of travesty still treasure the moment when Sir Cliff Richard realised a lifelong ambition and starred in the musical Heathcliff. Its finale, a show-stopping number called "Misunderstood Man", might easily appeal to Mr Brown.

Heathcliff's treatment of his wife and child would make the most deranged member of Fath-ers4Justice blanch, but there is nevertheless something in the Brown-Heathcliff comparison.

Most Wednesdays, the Prime Minister faces the Leader of the Opposition like a wounded, angry outcast, sometimes giving the impression that he would like to bound across the chamber and strangle David Cameron.

Two days ago, when Mr Brown was at the G8 summit in Japan, Harriet Harman stood in for him at Prime Minister's Questions. It was a pleasure to see her at the dispatch box, remaining soignée and good-tempered throughout her exchanges with William Hague, an obsessive Europhobe who is fast becoming the Les Dawson of British politics. In a just world, Ms Harman would be Deputy Prime Minister, a position denied to her by Mr Brown even though she has the democratic mandate he lacks; it was one of his most Heathcliffian decisions, mean-spirited and contemptuous towards those who voted for her in Labour's deputy leadership contest.

But Mr Cameron's Tories are no better: where was Ms Harman's counterpart, shadow Leader of the House Theresa May, this week? Sitting on the Opposition benches, I'm afraid, while Mr Hague ranted and grandstanded. And I've heard it said that Tory backbenchers are not exactly heartbroken about the troubles assailing the party chairman, Caroline Spelman, who has pushed for more women and black people to be selected as Conservative candidates.

Back in 1997, when an unprecedented number of women were elected to Parliament in Labour's landslide victory, they were mocked relentlessly as "Blair's Babes". Even so, some of the decisions taken in those early years had a hugely beneficial impact on the daily lives of women and children; the introduction of a national minimum wage is a prime example.

But women are rarely selected for seats with big majorities, and many of the 1997 intake will be ejected from Parliament at the next general election. There are already signs that women's issues are slipping down the agenda; when Ms Harman tried recently to tackle the pay gap between men and women, her proposal to introduce transparency into the workplace foundered as soon as it reached her cabinet colleagues. Her insistence that men who have sex with trafficked women and girls are committing rape has caused outrage in some quarters, even though she is clearly right in law and morality.

The return to macho politics is not merely a British phenomenon. France currently has its weirdest-ever President, an irritable, hyperactive individual whose Napoleonic fantasies are comical to behold. Only a man with an unusual degree of vanity could look benignly on his new wife's public insistence that their relationship is incredibly hot, a message she has recorded for posterity on her latest disc. Actually, Carla Sarkozy-Bruni's breathy murmurings remind me of Nicole Kidman's sex scenes with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, and we all know what happened to them.

Over the border in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi continues to preside over his characteristic brand of authoritarian farce, fending off accusations that he asked a TV executive to give jobs to actresses he described as his "little butterflies". At the same time, Mr Berlusconi's newly-appointed minister for equal opportunities, a 32-year-old former model called Maria Carfagna, is threatening to sue over allegations that she had an "inappropriate" relationship with him.

I'm tempted to say you couldn't make it up: Mr Berlusconi behaving like an elderly Don Juan, Mr Sarkozy yearning to be Napoleon and Mr Brown fancying himself as the hero of a Victorian novel. I'm also not sure what we've done to deserve it at a moment when the Swedish and Danish social democratic parties have women leaders and the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has declared himself a feminist. His country's sportsmen have just won everything in sight, and no-one thinks there's a problem with his masculinity.

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