Steve Richards: Sour grapes and failed politicians

The criticisms that women have made of the PM are all conveniently imprecise

Related Topics

Gordon Brown has a problem with women. Women were his most vocal critics last month when he fought to keep his job and as he desperately reshuffled his government. Now BBC Radio 4 has interviewed a range of former and current female ministers about their views on the Prime Minister. The programme-makers have finished up with a treasure trove of opinions. Virtually every interview provides news and another nail in Brown's coffin.

Gordon's Women, broadcast at the weekend, was perfectly timed because of a growing perception that Brown is a King Lear figure, content only with his raucous, bullying male court. In some productions of the play Lear's court is so wildly macho that the audience begins to have some sympathy for the malevolently scheming Goneril and Regan, Lear's two daughters who turn on their father. Surely there is cause for more sympathy in relation to Gordon's women as they reflect on their tormented lives with a Prime Minister and his bunch of rowdy male allies?

It seems the women feel fairly sorry for themselves. The former Cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt speaks of Brown's inner circle as "almost entirely men and really rather laddish in its culture". Jane Kennedy, who left the Government last month, notes Brown's "darker side". Margaret Jay feels intimidated because he "doesn't make it easy to feel that you've established a personal connection". Kennedy compares him to a mafia boss. The former Europe minister Caroline Flint claims that women in particular are "picked out" for malicious private briefings.

Is this the epitaph for a government that begin its life in 1997 by hailing the number of women MPs that had been elected for the first time? In order to get a clear answer let us take a closer look at the allegations and those making them.

All the disgruntled interviewees are former members of the Government without much chance of a return. Some are leaving the Commons at the next election. It would be just as easy to interview a group of former male ministers drained of political ambition or hope who would be equally forthright. Critical candour tends to arise when MPs no longer seek the patronage of their leader. It has nothing to do with the sex of the critic and much more with the narrowing of a leader's patronage after a long period of one-party rule.

Similar views regarding Harold Wilson's court can be found from the late 1960s onwards when some MPs felt, wrongly, that Wilson's days at the top were numbered. A sense of bullying exclusion was a common theme when Margaret Thatcher's critics, male and female, dared to speak out towards the end of her leadership. Tony Blair too was subjected to the same criticism about his male court, not least from one or two women who had been sacked in reshuffles.

In particular there were criticisms of his appointment of Alan Milburn as chair of the party on the grounds that he was too macho, one of the more irrational onslaughts on someone who had previously left the cabinet to spend more time with his family.

Gordon's Women follow the pattern of candour at the end of a limited ministerial career. Flint was famously loyal to Gordon on the night the polls closed after the local and European elections. She fumed against his machismo only after she had not been appointed to the Cabinet. Hewitt left the Government after Blair departed. Kennedy departed at the last reshuffle.

Their criticisms are conveniently imprecise. It is all vaguely about tone and style. They are bothered by "briefings" against them, although it is not at all clear they have been direct victims of smears. There is also, I note, an imbalance in the "briefings" wars. Apparently they can speak out against Brown and his allies, but when it is the other way around they protest about too much machismo. Recently several advisers and ministers have been privately critical of the Brownite minister Ed Balls on the grounds that he has made hostile briefings to journalists. They brief against Balls about alleged briefings. Apparently that is all right.

Most of this minor traffic goes on in politics all the time and has nothing to do with being male or female. For women to attack Brown on the grounds that he attacks them seems to be having your cake and eating it.

The women also conjure up an image of a Brownite court which is largely mythological. We know all about macho Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan. Brown's misguided dependence on these media handlers caused him far more damage than any of their supposed victims, a number that has always been exaggerated.

As far as there were victims they have tended to be male. Probably Alistair Darling has more cause than most to lick his wounds. He is not a woman. Beyond McBride and Whelan there is not a huge amount of machismo in Ed Miliband and several others who were part of Brown's entourage for more than a decade.

A woman, Sue Nye, has run his chaotic office since 1992. One of the most influential figures to whom Brown turns is Shriti Vadera, a woman who appears on the Radio 4 programme to point out that there is a fair amount of diversity in the Government. Angela Smith, who has been a parliamentary aide to Brown, says she never felt held back because she was a woman. Vadera and Smith are both still active in the Government. The real divide is more between the possessed and dispossessed than between men and women.

Even Brown's closest allies accept that he is hopeless at people management, insensitive to ministerial figures, both men and women. John Major was more thoughtful in his personal dealings and yet in his first Cabinet he omitted to appoint a single woman.

Who was the more macho – the well- mannered Major or the supposedly anti-women Brown? There are many epic flaws with Brown – and with the New Labour project – but women who complain about their treatment need to look closer to home in order to find why they have not flourished at the top of politics.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
The Queen spoke of respect for all cultures and faiths in her Christmas message  

Decoding the Queen's speech: Was Her Majesty taking a swipe at Ukip?

Jane Merrick
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015