THE VICTORY OF THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT..?
And the winner is.. one who is not even a candidate for the Westminster Parliament; who stands only 5’2” in her stockinged feet, wears bright
red suits and has a voice that could blister paint. But Nicola Sturgeon left her rivals reeling on Thursday night, with 28% of viewers reckoning
she’d won it.
What was so striking, however, was that three women party Leaders faced off four men with confidence and commitment, and at least one of them did it
brilliantly. “Four chinless wonders against three good women,” was one comment I’ve heard. Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood, both new to
the job, trailed a bit – as one Twitterer remarked, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas must have been cursing that it wasn’t her. And Sturgeon
reminds me of a mediaeval saint; you could disembowel her, but she’d still be talking. Effective? Not half.
These doughty dames displayed what the chaps seemed to lack: a genuine belief and passion for the electoral contest. You got the impression that they
really were in it for what they could do given enough power, and not just for the trappings of high office; whereas Cameron, with by far the best policies
and record, was almost languid by comparison.
Suddenly, things have changed. You could hear the spin doctors in Conservative and Labour HQs muttering, “Women! That’s it! We need more
feisty, ballsy, in-your-face women. They’re the ones to set politics alight once more, to drag the disinterested voter to the polls, to get people to
listen. Where are the women who can do this? Get me a list...”
Hoorah, I silently shout, and about time too. Female politicos have been making a splash since Lady Astor nearly a century ago. I grew up in Liverpool
where ballsy Bessie Braddock was always on the front page and spoken of with admiration by friends and opponents alike. When I was a student, the
best-known (and loved) front-bencher was Blackburn’s Barbara Castle whose decency made Harold Wilson look sly and Roy Jenkins treacherous, which with
hindsight we know to be true. So I’ve always known that tough women could make great MPs. It’s just taken too long (and I am no feminist) for
popular culture to recognise the fact.
This has to be a wake-up call for strong women. ‘Who will be the next Leader?’ becomes a question with women in the frame as possible answers.
Next time around, in 2020, it’s now easy to imagine the TV debates with Theresa May and Yvette Cooper. Ed Balls has admitted that his wife would make
a terrific job of Leader of the Labour Party; had she tried last time, Ed Miliband would probably have been nowhere. Instead, Cooper topped the 2010 shadow
Cabinet poll and as shadow Home Secretary has been one of the few Opposition MPs to face up to the steely Mrs May.
More than once, asked who could lead the Tories next, I’ve waited till Boris Johnson has been mentioned, then smiled: “Theresa May
might.” Her chances have just jumped a thousand-fold. Recently I attended a Derbyshire dinner where Theresa was the speaker. Tall, smart in a black
suit, slim and proficient, she barely mentioned the Home Office, but launched into a broad paean of praise for all Tory policies, name-checking colleagues
with credit for their achievements, for all the world as if she was in the top job already. She performed, in fact, just like Margaret Thatcher would have
done, and the comparison was no accident.
Boris is the main loser here. It’s been rather assumed in some quarters that when he gets into the Commons, where his charm and oratorical skills
will come to the fore, he’s a shoe-in for the top job as soon as Cameron relinquishes it. But I’m not so sure. Boris has been a great Mayor of
London and has promoted it superbly as an internationally successful city. He’s super-intelligent, articulate and fun. He wows the party conference
– but then so did Norman Tebbit. When it comes to running the country, however, Mrs May could be a lot more credible, particularly now the nation has
learned to love its women.
Women feature in political life, of course, but until this week it was all about kitchens, as both Samantha Cameron and Justine Miliband sipped tea and
chatted about their lovely husbands. How envious I used to be of MPs and Ministers who had spouses like that: who looked after the home, who put a hot
dinner on the table, guaranteed clean laundry, the shopping done, the kids collected from school and doing their homework. What most MPs want is a wife.
Their role matters, but it isn’t the only one.
It was a different world 40 years ago when Margaret Thatcher stood against Ted Heath for the Tory leadership (though to hear Nigel Farage, you’d
think that was the best of all times. It wasn’t; it was grim). That took sheer guts, and it was for her guts that the “little lady”, in
Airey Neave’s description, garnered sympathetic votes, so that she shouldn’t be utterly humiliated. When she won, everyone was astonished and
Heath never accepted it. She tackled the 1979 election in much the same fashion, patting calves, chatting about housekeeping, and pulled off a remarkable
victory. The party hierarchy assumed she’d be a figurehead, and that things would continue as before, but she saw them off with mass Cabinet sackings
and “The Lady’s not for turning.” Then came the Falklands, and the world at last recognised what Mrs T was made of.
The pool from which future female stars will be chosen is growing. When I entered the Commons in 1983 there were only 23 women MPs out of 656. 13 were
Tories (including the towering figure of the Prime Minister) and 10 Labour, with none from any other party. Last time there were 142, mostly Labour, but
with 48 Tory women. This time there could be 200, and at last the Commons will begin to look more like the people it represents.
Labour takes the credit for most of the improvement, but the all-women shortlist system means they haven’t won through the hardest of contests,
against men, in areas of the greatest prejudice like south Wales and the north-east. They’ve had it easier, and as a result are often useless.
That’s why they were dubbed “Blair babes” and grieved in silence; that’s why their Caroline Flint ticked off Gordon Brown for
promoting her as “window dressing.” Cameron took a different tack, with half-and-half final selection lists, so that women candidates really do
have to battle it out with men. What struck me however is that recently Tory associations have been choosing, without pressure, from a raft of female
names. At last, they’ve caught up.
It’s from these female ranks that the next Cabinet Ministers will be emerging, with new faces and punchy styles which owe nothing to dimpled wifedom
and much to the Iron Lady. Margaret Thatcher used to encourage us women with, “We have to be better than the men to succeed. And” - with a wink
– “we are.” The time for the next Margaret Thatcher is approaching. Watch this space.