Profile: Hot, strong and on the boil again: Edwina Currie, speaking out on the age of consent

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The Independent Online
EDWINA CURRIE, resplendently photogenic in electric blue, spoke in the Commons on Tuesday on the second reading of the Criminal Justice Bill. To many people's surprise she is in favour of lowering the homosexual age of consent to match that of heterosexuals. She has said uncompromisingly, 'We treat gays in this country with tremendous cruelty and prejudice.'

It is surprising because Mrs (she loathes being called Ms) Currie is a flamboyant, extrovert, unsubtle northerner, proud of having the common touch. She used to be on the right of the Tory party, almost a hanger and a flogger, and first came to media attention brandishing a pair of handcuffs at the Conservative conference in 1981. She appeals to that lower-middle-class band of worthies who profess themselves dedicated to family values and incline to the self-righteous hounding of adulterous or homosexual MPs.

So why is Edwina risking her grassroots support by voting to lower the age of male consent to 16? Is she revealing her true self at last, has she undergone a gradual conversion, or is her stance a matter of political expediency?

She is one of the few politicians of whom everybody has a clear mental image, but since losing office over those eggs in 1988 she has moved from being a caricature to become the embodiment of straightforward, practical, common sense. No longer the Demon Edwina, practically booted and horned, many of her views have come to seem remarkably and refreshingly sane.

Despite her power base amid the no-hanky-panky brigade of Tory voters, she said last year of the Mellor sex scandal, 'It's hypocritical to expect people under tremendous pressure to behave impeccably. Whom you sleep with on a Saturday night has nothing to do with how well you do your job. I don't think any less of David because he had an undignified fling with a 6ft actress.' (Note that Curriesque sting in the tail. Edwina herself is a neat 5ft 4in and fanatical about keeping fit and feminine.) So: was there ever any truth in the Cruella de Vil caricature in the first place?

Views differ widely. One MP who has worked closely with her says, 'In the past five years she has undergone a sea change, but now more of the real Edwina is emerging. She has formidable self-confidence and some charm.'

Yet another parliamentary colleague said with real venom, 'I loathe her because she has a capacity for insensitivity paralleled only by Attila the Hun that has given me cause to want to assault her in a most unpleasant way. She is capable of put-downs that would fry an omelette at 50 yards. Yet she is also intelligent, creative and occasionally brave: the kind of person no society can do without.' What sort of woman provokes such contradictory views?

Born in Liverpool 47 years ago on 13 October, she went to a good local school (along with Peter Sissons, Paul McCartney and fellow MP Steven Norris) and was, says an anonymous contemporary, 'as self-opinionated, sparky and pushy as she is now, which made her quite an interesting person. She was hugely disliked and I don't think she gave a damn'. However, she got 10 O-and three A-levels and, like Margaret Thatcher, won a scholarship to Oxford to read chemistry.

She later switched to reading philosophy, politics and economics and, after getting a Second, moved on to the London School of Economics where she got her MSc in 1972. In an autobiographical story written in 1989 she said of her lightly fictionalised heroine, 'She did not want to spend her life like people in their little houses, marrying, having babies, paying the mortage, surviving and some day dying, unknown and forgotten, with no achievement, nothing permanent, nothing left behind.'

Ambition was deeply etched into the young Edwina's character. So was forthrightness. Finding herself attracted to a young accountant called Ray Currie, she detached him from his blonde girlfriend and in due course proposed to him. He accepted, and they were married 22 years ago. They have two daughters and, she frequently hints, an active sex life.

Starting her working life as a teacher and lecturer, the young Mrs Currie was elected to Birmingham City Council in 1975, becoming its youngest member, and took care to be active on the right sort of committees (housing, social services). She progressed smoothly from there into Parliament eight years later, becoming MP for Derbyshire South in 1983 at the age of 36.

In a Thatcher reshuffle in September 1986, Mrs Currie was promoted to a junior ministerial job at the Department of Health. The image of the strong, hot Currie dates from this appointment. For the next two years her energy and glee were unconfined. She revelled in the chance to tell the nation what to do. How could businessmen guard against Aids when travelling abroad? 'Take the wife]' How can young women avoid cervical cancer? 'Don't screw around]' How can the old avoid hypothermia? 'Wear woolly hats and long johns]' Her advice was blunt and practical, couched in terms calculated to catch the eye of the media.

Within months she was the second-most famous woman in the House of Commons. Many male MPs ridiculed and resented her. There was, briefly, a Westminster dining club called the Currie Club because it was dedicated to the lifestyle Mrs C deplored . . . fattening food, jolly trips abroad unaccompanied by wives and unrepentant smoking. No wonder she says the Commons has 'a silly streak'.

Nemesis came after two thrilling, turbulent years in the shape of the salmonella-in-eggs scandal. Mrs Currie declared robustly on television that 'most of the country's egg production was affected by salmonella'. If she could even have changed 'most of' to 'much of' she would probably have got away with it. Characteristically, disastrously, she stood firm and claimed it was true (as it may well have been). Egg sales plummeted, egg farmers fulminated and the cartoonists had a field day. Edwina had to say sorry or go. She went, in December 1988.

The incident revealed a surprising lack of basic political nous. She should have known that the details were unimportant; what mattered was the forward march of her promising political career. But hubris caught her out, and few lamented her downfall. The mistake was deeply revealing of her character: she has always had difficulty admitting that she is in the wrong.

It also showed up the worst side of the Tory party: the bluff heavy-smoking knights of the shires and, even more unattractively, the anti-Semites, riled by her cleverness, her energy, her holier- than-thouishness, baying for the kill. Both groups joined in the Gadarene rush by party and media to mow her down. It was a warning, had she been shrewd enough to read it, for Margaret Thatcher herself.

Edwina Currie has not held office since. John Major offered her a very junior ministerial post at the Home Office after the 1993 election as Minister of State for Prisons, but she refused it. One reason was her antipathy towards Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, which dates back to the salmonella scandal (when she felt he should have spoken out in her support); and she was too proud to accept a post that meant taking a step down. She decided to go for Europe, which meant she had to reconstruct herself as a milder, more subtle and sophisticated Currie. This she set about doing.

A colleague in the House of Commons analysed her strategy: 'The European Parliament has formidable new powers and a lot of very serious politicians give up their time to go there. One can see her chairing a committee and playing quite a big role; it has the kind of powers that might attract her. On top of that, she can move in sophisticated circles and turn out in exotic clothes and be a big player on the European stage. She'd like that.'

It is no sudden volte-face. Mrs Currie has always been a vociferous pro-European. She campaigned vigorously for Maastricht, has bought a house in the Loire region of France and is busy learning French. In March last year she was selected as the Conservative MEP candidate for Bedfordshire South, where at present the Tories have a slender 2,977 majority. She says she will resign her Commons seat if elected to the Strasbourg parliament in June.

Back, then, to the original question: why did Mrs Currie - northern, self- confident, populist, right of centre - execute if not a U-turn at any rate a three-point turn, so that she now supports legislation to promote equality for homosexuals? After all, in 1988 she had voted for Section 28 - the infamous clause making it unlawful for local authorities to 'promote' homosexuality - but she had little choice. She was a minister at the time, and as a member of the government she had to toe the party line. Had she voted against, she would have lost her job.

Peter Tatchell, a campaigner for gay rights, says: 'Maybe the fact that she's a woman and Jewish makes her more sensitive to the suffering and humiliation that homosexuals face.' She has always been an independent-minded Conservative backbencher, tending to speak for herself rather than uncritically follow the party line. Yet other MPs such as Sir John Wheeler, Robin Squire, Steven Norris, Michael Brown and John Bowis have supported lowering the age of consent for a long time, without attracting the same attention as Edwina.

A cynic might suggest that she is doing it because it is a very high-profile cause. 'For a community so heavily excoriated and abused, the gay community wields a vast amount of influence over what is fashionable and acceptable,' says a prominent gay activist.

She is genuinely concerned about HIV and Aids - and this is not opportunistic, but dates back at least eight years to her days at the Department of Health. Her personal sympathy and support for gay men is of long standing. 'Gay men are people we know and work with and like - what they do is not a disease and whether they do it or not should be an entirely private matter.'

'In the end,' says an MP, 'it would be quite wrong to impute any other motive than that she simply thinks lowering the age of consent is right.' And as everything in her past career demonstrates, if Edwina thinks something is right she goes for it, whatever the cost.