Harriet Harman shows how it’s done as the Labour Party thrives in a vacuum

Harman will step back from frontline politics when the new leader and deputy are elected

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The Independent Online

Harriet Harman opened her questions to David Cameron at PMQs on Wednesday with a tribute to England’s women, who at that point had not yet broken our hearts by losing to Japan in the World Cup semi-final. “With only a fraction of the resources that the men get, they are showing the men how it is done,” the acting Labour leader said.

Harman, who will step back from frontline politics when the new leader and deputy are elected in September, is usually a by-word for a joke about feminism. Harriet Harperson, they call her. Typical, those same people would have said, that she would have made a point about women footballers doing better than men.

Except Steph Houghton’s team had progressed further in a World Cup than any England men’s team had done since 1990. And just like them, Harman is showing everyone – men and women – how leading a party is done. She is inhabiting the role of leader of the opposition like a natural.

Unlike Ed Miliband, Harman looked at ease rubbing shoulders with Boris Johnson at the Spectator’s summer party last week. You get the sense that Miliband would have agonised about who to stand with and what to drink; Harman just looked like she was enjoying herself. I am not saying Harman is perfect. Her Pink Bus during the election was a terrible idea. Not the concept of driving round in a bus reaching out to women who feel cut adrift from Westminster. But the colour was ghastly. Yet the way Harman didn’t back down and put her Pink Bus into reverse gear tells you something about her leadership qualities: she takes a decision and sticks to it.

Take Labour’s response to Sir Howard Davies’ report on expansion at Heathrow. Miliband used to oppose expansion in west London, then, after months of prevaricating, he supported it. Harman and Michael Dugher, the shadow Transport Secretary, met minutes after being given an embargoed preview of the report on Tuesday evening. There was a brief discussion, I am told, but both were clear that they would back the conclusions that the best option was a third runway at Heathrow. By Wednesday morning, it looked like Labour was being a grown-up, realistic party.

Similarly, when the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon reignited the debate over whether Britain should take part in air strikes against “Islamic State” in Syria, his shadow Vernon Coaker said Labour “stands ready” to back the government in whatever decision it took. Such a stark contrast from Miliband’s stand against military action in Syria in August 2013.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Labour’s positions on Heathrow and Syria, it is almost as if the departure of Miliband, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander from the top of Labour has released a pressure valve in the shadow cabinet. One senior MP told me that, while the leadership candidates are engaged in some pretty tense red-on-red battles, it is a halcyon period for the rest of the shadow cabinet until the new leader is announced on 12 September: “We can say what the f*** we want.”

The result of this carefree attitude is, perversely, not chaos and indiscipline, but something quite refreshing. A leader taking decisions on a case-by-case basis and, without an imminent election to fight, grown-up responses to big questions posed by the government. Sure, when Harman responds to George Osborne’s summer Budget this week, she will be scathing about cuts to benefits and tax credits, but the criticism will be constructive. Nature may abhor a vacuum but the Labour Party is thriving in one.

A fright at the opera

I’ve been to the opera at Covent Garden more than 60 times in the past 10 years. I know this because the other day I counted the programmes I kept from each performance. I report this only in the hope that the Royal Opera House will listen, perhaps, to what this regular audience member thinks about its new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and the controversial rape scene that was not in the original but ladled in by director Damiano Michieletto.

I should say I haven’t seen this production, but by every account I wouldn’t want toeither. Michieletto claims the scene, in which actress Jessica Chamberlain plays a woman stripped naked by a gang of soldiers and molested with the barrel of a gun, was simply “10 seconds” (really?) out of a four and a half hour performance but it seemed designed to have sustained impact and shock for the audience, or why do it at all?

Since the uproar of the opening night, the production has been modified slightly and Chamberlain is now covered with a tablecloth. But this sounds, literally and figuratively, like a flimsy attempt to cover something that can still be witnessed: the gratuitous and voyeuristic treatment of a woman. I had a similarly uncomfortable feeling when I watched Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden this year.

I had seen Puccini’s opera about five times, yet this time – whether it was because I am now a mother, or we are in a post-Savile era – it felt nauseating to watch a soprano portray an underage Japanese girl remove her clothes to have sex with an American navy captain and, later, to kill herself with her infant son blindfolded close by. Puccini may have enjoyed the suffering of his female characters but whose fault is it that we feel this way now, in 2015?

I know opera is all about sex and death, but to watch as it crosses the line makes us feel like grubby accomplices.

Anyone for ‘Wimbledon 2day’?

Given the outcry over Wimbledon 2day, anyone would think the BBC had committed something on a par with Guillaume Tell, and Clare Balding needed covering with a tablecloth. I realise I am in a minority, but I think the BBC should stick to their guns. I’m glad they’re showing more tennis clips than they were at the start, but this is not about making the people who already watch tennis happy, it’s widening access to a sport that still reeks of elitism.

Balding has the ability to reach audiences that other presenters cannot. The way tennis “bad boy” Nick Kyrgios is dimly regarded by the over-starched Wimbledon “community” has barely moved on from how they treated John McEnroe more than 30 years ago.

Twitter: @janemerrick23