A politician who’s authentic, has the gift of the gab, a mop of hair and an interesting personal life, but is occasionally gaffe-prone. Remind you of anyone?
Standing in for Sir Keir Starmer, she skewered Dominic Raab like the Greek kebab he might have ordered in his hotel room when he found the sea “closed” on holiday. There were the predictable jibes about his sun lounger, the easy hits on the energy crisis – and the painful truth about tax rises and the cost of living.
It was classic Rayner. Aggressive, cheeky and spoken with a knowledge of the real world and its travails.
Rayner speaks human. It’s a trait she shares with the PM, though their political hinterland couldn’t be more different. Both shoot from the hip, and their knack for a catchy turn of phrase has got them in trouble in the past. Crucially, both are unspinnable. They are what they are, with all the complexities life brings. Rayner, already a grandmother at 41; Johnson, about to become a father again aged 57, adding to his brood of six (and counting).
There, of course, the similarities end. Where the current occupant of Downing Street was educated at Eton College and Oxford University, Rayner left school in Stockport at 16, pregnant, without any qualifications at all; before graduating to life as a single mum who worked nights as a carer. And it’s those differences that make her attacks on the government so powerful.
When she accuses the government of lumbering a worker on £18,000 a year with a £1,100 pay cut, she does so from the position of someone who grew up in poverty. The “ginger kid on a council estate” – as she describes herself – didn’t have hot water in her childhood home, so she went to her nana’s for a bath on Sundays. At the age of 10, she became the main carer for her mentally ill mum.
She knows how tough life is for people at the bottom of the pile, because she’s been there.
And now, here she is at the despatch box, telling the deputy prime minister to “go back to his sun lounger and let me take over”. In a country that used to be governed by the old school tie – who you know and where you got your education – it felt as if she’d launched a revolution in her lunch hour.
For sure, she has her share of detractors, and plenty still cast aspersions on her intelligence and grasp of detail. And she can rub people up the wrong way by saying the second thing which comes into her head, if not the first. But remember the prime minister himself has excused past controversies by explaining that “occasionally some plaster comes off the ceiling as a result of a phrase I may have used”.
Perhaps working-class women are – wrongly – held to a higher standard.
Even so, Rayner’s fans reckon her performance yesterday firmly installed her as one of Labour’s best assets. Which makes her stance on the row Sir Keir has picked with the membership and left-wing unions all the more crucial.
Rayner’s friends say she’s spitting tacks about the move, and is undecided whether to lend him her support. She challenged him on it during a heated conversation at the weekend, asking why he was starting a fight he wasn’t sure he could win, but allies believe that in the end she’ll reluctantly row in behind him.
To do anything else would be tantamount to a leadership challenge. And while she’s increasingly confident she could muster the numbers, now isn’t the time.
But that time may come. Sir Keir’s cerebral, cautious leadership is beginning to rankle with some of his backbenchers. And his critics wonder if Rayner may yet be Labour’s answer to Boris Johnson. The current leader of the opposition underestimates her at his peril. And so does the government.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm
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