Harriet in the shadows

She may survive today's election but there are doubts over Harriet Harman's long-term place in Tony Blair's top team
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The Independent Online
She is the telegenic face of new Labour and she will not be abandoned now, despite the hostility of fellow MPs and their thirst for revenge over her decision earlier this year to send her son to a selective grammar school.

If Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokesperson, survives today's Shadow Cabinet election, it will be due entirely to a show of front-bench solidarity that has been dictated in almost Stalinist terms from the top. For Harriet Harman, 45, the member for Peckham in south-east London, holds a trump card or two, and can afford to brazen out her deep unpopularity with the parliamentary party. But it has less to do with her political skills - questions about which have dogged her career in the Commons - than with her perceived attractiveness to certain voters.

First off is her quintessential middle-classness. Her father was a Harley Street consultant and her mother a lawyer. She is a niece of the well connected Labour peer Lord Longford. and she was educated at St Paul's, a private girl's school in London. Harman studied law at York University before qualifying as a solicitor. It is a pedigree that speaks louder to wavering Tory supporters and floating voters in the South-east than any policy document or assurance from a front-bench male.

She has the "F" factor appeal to male voters - fanciability - but this is balanced by her role-model status for working women everywhere. She is, by every account, a devoted mother of three and enjoys a successful marriage to Jack Dromey, a national official with the Transport and General Workers' Union.

She looks good on television too; Blair's ears, Brown's jowls, and John Prescott's straining bulldog-in-a-suit persona are diminished on any platform by Harman's truly stunning baby-blue eyes. And, of course, she is a close personal friend of Blair and a member of his inner circle.

All of which, in new Labour's eyes, adds up to a vote-winning combination that Blair refuses to jettison, despite Harman's current status as his most-reviled front-bencher, and doubts about whether she is up to such a big job as health in a Labour government.

She suffered as shadow chief secretary from being a loyal lieutenant to Gordon Brown as he was determinedly steering the party away from its pre-1992 tax-and-spend policy. With Brown unassailable she served as the lightning conductor for discontent. But she campaigned assiduously - and successfully - for the reduction in VAT on fuel, and she handled Labour's minimum wage policy deftly.

When she was first at health, as number two to Robin Cook, one of her few original ideas was for a hypothecated tax for the NHS - something that was promptly sat on by John Smith, a Treasury man to the core.

Critics say she has consistently failed to come across as a thinker, or even as someone with more than a basic grasp of policy.

Her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. She has the self -confidence of someone born to rule. This may give her an unshakable belief in her own abilities , but it makes her look arrogant and impervious to criticism.

At odds with her voter-friendly and stylish appearance is a tendency to harangue and hector. This strident style is off-putting in debate. She has an unerring ability to confuse voters on key issues, such as the private finance initiative in the NHS and Labour's on-off support for it.

She is a modernist and yet her instincts on the health service are clearly old Labour. She rejects vehemently anything at all worthwhile in the Tory's NHS reforms. And her apparent lack of clout with the Shadow Cabinet means that, on current figures, Labour will enter an election campaign with less money in real terms for the health service than the Conservatives.

Her sound-bites are predictable and she relies heavily on statistical bombardment - rather in the style of that other "Head Girl", the former health secretary Virginia Bottomley

Officials at the Department of Health live in fear of Harman's arrival there as another Bottomley who will attach as much importance to presentation and style as to the substance of her policy.

But there is more: Harman has never given any indication that she understands the difference between being in Government and opposition. She can cope adequately with attacking and rejecting Tory government policies. But she has yet to show that she can come up with new ideas or make hard choices about the NHS - and take people with her who don't agree. On present form, not something she appears to care much about.

However, her frequent wimpish performances in the House of Commons and at press conferences have occasionally been redeemed by flamboyant displays of gutsiness. One such was her appearance before the Parliamentary Labour Party in January to explain why she was sending her son, Joe, to St Olave's, the grammar school in Orpington, Kent, 10 miles from the family home. The adrenaline was still flowing that afternoon with an acclaimed performance in the Commons when she opened an opposition debate on the health service. Temporarily, she silenced calls for her resignation. Blair breathed easy.

The secret of Harman's political survival so far - lies in her tenacity, and her ability to tough it out in a crisis. She has been bolstered in this by total faith in her own value to new Labour in any election campaign. But should Labour win the next election, she will have to deliver on more than votes.

For the time being, Harman has the patronage of Blair - at least until the election. He said at the time of the St Olave's crisis that he understood absolutely the dilemma, of a parent wanting the best for a child, and he risked much to save her. But it is said that she has not been grateful enough to him, and his closest aides are still baying for her blood.

Mischief-makers have been touting the name of Harman's great friend Tessa Jowell as the real choice for health secretary should Labour form the next government. Revenge enough for her enemies?