Over the past week, the corridors of power seem to have been transformed into the cheesy plot of an ‘erotic novel’ penned by Edwina Currie; perhaps John Major’s former bit-on-the-side was on to something after all. Then again, it’s not so long since a quick grope beneath a CCTV camera by Matt Hancock was splashed across every front page on Fleet Street, so none of the current wave of ‘revelations’ are especially jaw-dropping. Granted, unnamed MPs watching phone porn in the Chamber is a new one, though why anyone would want to view porn in public when the accompanying physical response to it cannot be entered into without the risk of arrest on the grounds of indecent exposure is beyond me; yet, maybe the brazen thrill of watching it in a public place is part of the appeal for those who indulge in it – like dogging. Added to this grubby incident there’s also the alleged tribute to Sharon Stone on the part of Labour’s Deputy, Angela ‘Thingle Mother’ Rayner; considering how damaged every VHS copy of ‘Basic Instinct’ being returned to Blockbuster back in the day must have been whenever it came for that notorious scene to be played (and played and played), it’s a relief the camera crew working for BBC Parliament exercise a little more discretion.
I’m not quite sure if the suffix ‘gate’ has been attached to the saga of Angela Rayner’s crossed/uncrossed legs yet, but to do so would elevate it to a significance it doesn’t deserve at a time when one might say there are a few more important issues for our elected representatives to deal with. Perhaps it’s just a deliberately distracting story after an endless slew of relentlessly depressing heavyweight ones, and a convenient chance for Labour to play the sexist card when they appear incapable of chiming with public opinion in any other way. However, as it naturally slots into a certain feminist narrative, it’s being held up by some as emblematic of ‘institutionalised sexism’, which is as prevalent a presence as ‘institutionalised racism’ when it comes to our institutions in the popular imagination. The fact that Ms Rayner has been accused of joking about flashing her pins in the PM’s eye-line – supposedly overheard on the terrace of the Commons – suggests if the alleged flash actually happened it could well have been intentional.
Anyone who doubts that some women are not beyond occasionally weaponising their sexuality by deliberately exploiting men who are vulnerable to such cheap tricks evidently doesn’t get out much. If Angela Rayner did intentionally give Boris a peek in order to put him off his stride, she at least did so in the knowledge she couldn’t have picked a better target. After all, the PM has had his Benny Hill moments, as his numerous wives and mistresses will testify. Mind you, as a speech bubble in the current Private Eye points out in a photo of Rayner addressing the Government benches, she’s the one who has to look across at a twat every day, not Boris. At the same time, the sense of this story being used as a point-scoring exercise by Labour is kind-of ironic considering the Party can’t even define what a woman is; laughable Labour logic implies that the PM could just as well have been confronted by a dick should his gaze have wandered over to a lady on the Opposition benches – and, let’s face it, there’s no shortage of dicks on either side of the House.
But if Angela Rayner gave Boris an accidental flash, it would support the notion that the Commons is not really the right environment to wear a skirt that leaves little to the imagination; it’s only a couple of years or so ago that the now-‘Mayor of West Yorkshire’ Tracy Brabin made a speech in the Chamber dressed in an off-the-shoulder number that one wag said made her look as though she’d just been done over the dustbins round the back of her local KFC at the end of a hen night; and if Parliament didn’t have some sort of dress code, then male MPs could theoretically turn up for a debate dressed in T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps. Nobody is accusing any female MP of dressing ‘provocatively’ and therefore ‘asking for it’, but an awareness that they are in a workplace and should at least make the effort to dress accordingly is probably required. They’re not on a pissed-up day-trip to bloody Aintree, when all’s said and done.
It goes without saying that accusations claiming Angela Rayner was overheard bragging about putting Boris off by doing a Sharon Stone have been sidestepped by Labour, which has instead chosen to adopt the familiar victim line, with the Mail on Sunday – the paper that broke the story – singled out as a peddler of archaic misogynistic muck-raking. The article contained comments from the usual anonymous sources stating that Ms Rayner ‘knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks’. In a way, the most offensive thing about that line is the implication that, by virtue of his privileged background, the PM is somehow in possession of a verbal dexterity that the low-born Rayner can’t match and therefore has to resort to the tactics of a back-street slapper to outwit him rather than employing a highbrow luxury like intelligence.
Whatever one’s opinion of Angela Rayner, it cannot be disputed that making it all the way to Deputy Leader of a major political party has been a considerable personal achievement on her part; but she is her own worst enemy. Her infamous ‘Tory Scum’ rant merely handed ammunition to opponents who had a far smoother ride to the top, and by playing the sexist card she is once again confirming her enemy’s view of her intellectual limitations. Of course some male MPs, particularly those schooled in the gladiatorial arena of a single-sex environment like Eton, are insensitive towards their female colleagues in the Commons – largely due to their lop-sided impression of what women want – and a fair amount of genuine, old-fashioned sexism can be endemic in such characters; yet, at the same time, there are some female MPs who play upon this misogynistic ignorance and manipulate it to their own political advantage in a manner that is just as shameless and serves to render them no better than their opponents.
Responding to the story Angela Rayner said ‘As women, we sometimes try to brush aside the sexism we face, but that doesn’t make it okay…it can’t be women’s responsibility to call it out every time. I don’t need anyone to explain sexism to me – I experience it every day. Every time I do a PMQs somebody has an opinion on what I wear.’ Probably true, but many similarly critical column inches are also devoted to the appearance of an MP such as Michael Fabricant and his hairpiece, just as they once were to the gargantuan bulk of Cyril Smith, long before less apparent aspects of his personality were made public. Yes, women are confronted by forms of sexism on a daily basis, and they don’t have to be Members of Parliament; just ask any woman who’s ever driven her car into a garage or has had to suffer a handyman in the house recruited to fix repairs; female MPs are in a unique position to rise above this, and playing the sexism card is a cop-out when they could do so much more.
The most worrying element of this sublimely frivolous story is the fact that the Speaker of the House considerably exceeded his authority by demanding that David Dillon, the Mail on Sunday editor, be summoned to appear before him. Mr Dillon rightly refused the summons, as did his political editor Glen Owen; even Boris Johnson – a former journalist himself, lest we forget – supported the stance of the Mail on Sunday, stating that journos should ‘not take instructions from officials of the House of Commons, however august they may be.’ This statement was added to by a Downing Street spokesperson, who said ‘The Prime Minister is uncomfortable at the idea of our free press being summoned by politicians.’ He went on to say that the PM wouldn’t want ‘any perception of politicians seeking to in any way curb or control what a free press seeks to report.’ Indeed. In these troubled times, both politicians and political journalists should be focused on issues of far greater importance than the height of a hemline.
© The Editor