She's Minister for Women, so who needs chauvinists?

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On Thursday I happened to be talking to a Labour backbencher who opposes his government's cuts in benefit to lone parents. As he shook his head in despair, and remarked on Harriet Harman's lamentable performance in the House of Commons, I realised something both of us had forgotten. Ms Harman, as well as being Social Security Secretary, is also Minister for Women. When I mentioned this fact, we broke into what I think is known as hollow laughter.

Ms Harman's appointment, supposedly a ground-breaking move by Tony Blair's government, was revealed in the heady days immediately after the general election. But the announcement of the setting up of a Whitehall Women's Unit, and a Cabinet sub-committeee chaired by Ms Harman to look at the way in which decisions affect women, was delayed until four weeks later - by which time it already looked dangerously like an after-thought.

At the time, Ms Harman wrote an article in the Guardian about her role as Minister for Women, arguing that women "want a government they can trust, a government that delivers". So I think it is reasonable to ask which Ms Harman stood up in the House on Wednesday night, sometimes close to tears because of barracking from her own backbenchers, and attempted to justify measures which will hit some of the worst-off women in society?

The one who believes British women have had such a raw deal from previous governments that they need a special minister, namely herself, to defend their interests against hard-hearted politicians whose first interest is saving money? Or the one who, as Social Security minister, controls a high-spending department whose budget she is determined to slash, regardless of the consequences?

Back in June, I pointed out in this newspaper that Ms Harman appeared to have been given a title but virtually no money, which was bad enough. I also asked how she intended to reconcile two ministerial roles which were so obviously in conflict with each other. This week we got the answer. Ms Harman's mission to save money overrides all other considerations - and she has consistently refused to address the question of what should happen to those women who cannot or do not want to get jobs until their children are older.

You would think, to hear Ms Harman talk, that all single mothers live in metropolitan areas where jobs are plentiful and transport is easy. "Lone mothers want to work - for a better standard of living for their children," she has insisted. But this is far from being the whole story, as a single mother living in a rural area told a Radio 4 programme this week. The only jobs available to her are in a distant town, making the cost of travelling and childcare prohibitive - and much of the work is seasonal.

From April, a single mother who takes a seasonal job and is laid off at the end of it risks being treated by the DSS as a new claimant - and may find herself up to pounds 10.25 a week worse off. If Harriet Harman, as Britain's first Minister for Women, is unable to grasp such details, an honourable course is open to her. She should resign at once.

Ms Harman is not the only member of the Government who is unable to spot contradictions and conflicts of interest. Some of Thursday's newspapers, which had pictures of a chastened Social Security Secretary on their front pages, reserved space inside for photo-spreads of Tony and Cherie Blair schmoozing celebs at a reception at 10 Downing Street.

What a busy old Prime Minister we have these days - a Renaissance man who could find time to share a joke with Chris Evans and Zoe Ball on the very evening that Labour MPs were threatening to vote against their government. How happy Cherie looked, embracing Liz Dawn, who plays Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street. How willingly Tony signed an orange which Chris Evans said he would give away on his Virgin Radio breakfast show the following morning. How thrilled the Blairs must have been to meet Edna O'Brien, John Mortimer, John Thaw and Kevin Whateley - and all at a cost to the taxpayer of only pounds 3,000, roughly equal to a week's cut in benefit to 290 single mothers from next April.

Malcolm Bruce, the Lib Dems' diligent Treasury spokesman, has forced the Government to admit it spent pounds 7.4m on hospitality between 1 May and 30 September - more than a million pounds a month on receptions and drinks parties. The Ministry of Defence alone has managed to use up pounds 2m in this way, while Wednesday's bash at No 10 was the sixth such event hosted by the Blairs since the general election.

It is obvious to anyone outside the Blairs' charmed circle that this kind of socialising is in the worst possible taste when the Government is perceived by many ordinary people as abandoning its commitments to single parents, students from poor families and (coming soon) the disabled. How many of us realised, when we voted Labour on 1 May, that we were landing ourselves with five years of Champagne Tony, a Prime Minister with so many stars in his eyes that he is no longer able to make simple connections?

One of the celebs who has visited No 10 in recent months is Noel Gallagher, whose band stomped off stage in a huff last weekend when someone lobbed a plastic bottle on stage. I have no time at all for Oasis but it always amuses me when pop stars whose success is founded, at least in part, on a reputation for bad behaviour come over holier-than-thou. Nor am I convinced by the response of the Prodigy - a band I like very much, by the way - to an early day motion, signed by Diane Abbott and other MPs, criticising their second album, Fat of the Land.

The complaints about a track entitled "Smack My Bitch Up" stem, apparently, from "misunderstanding the nature of the band and their music". The band's second line of defence is that the title "doesn't describe anything at all". This might wash if the song was called, say, "Smack My Fish Up". But it isn't. Even in the Age of Disconnections which Tony Blair has ushered in, some of us can be forgiven for concluding, in our old-fashioned way, that there is a link between what something says and what it actually means.

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