Harriet Harman belongs to a particular breed of Labour women who claim to have the best interests of other women at heart. In reality, their concern is rooted in a blinkered ideology, says Liz Hunt.
Harriet Harman once cracked a joke. Yes, I know, it's hard to believe. Humour is not one of Miss Harman's chief attributes, nor is self-awareness – and this, remarkably, was a joke against herself. Asked, at the height of the leadership crisis last summer, about her own chances of becoming prime minister, Miss Harman said: "It will not be possible, because there aren't enough airports in the country for all the men who would want to flee."
One year on, she could confidently rewrite the line to include all the women who would join the stampede, too: desperate to escape a Britain shaped by her politically correct zealotry. The news that she has been slapped down by No 10 over a policy announcement is the culmination of a disastrous few days for Labour's deputy leader, although an entertaining time for the rest of us. As an end-of-pier turn, she is starting to rival John Prescott in his gaffe-prone heyday.
Topics of national and international import – the swine flu pandemic, doctors' hours, bankers' bonuses, war in Afghanistan, turbulence in Iran – are of no concern to the woman in charge while Gordon chews his nails in a sodden Lake District and rues the political necessity of having to take a holiday at home. Instead, Miss Harman's fixation with "equality" continues – although her ranting has taken on a disturbing shrillness reminiscent of the "all men are rapists" school of feminism.
She does "not agree with all-male leaderships" because men "cannot be left to run things on their own", she told an interviewer at the weekend. This eye-popping statement came alongside reports that, after winning the deputy leadership in 2007, she tried to change Labour's rules to ensure that a woman was always in a top job.
Undeterred by the ridicule this attracted – not least from many prominent women – she turned her fire on the bankers, suggesting that if the girls, rather than a horde of testosterone-fuelled Gordon Gekkos, had been in charge, the global downturn may not have been as serious. I think she has a point about the macho culture of high finance, but she negated it almost immediately with a crass reference to "Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers". It prompted one minister to comment that "Harriet has literally gone bonkers". It is the timing of these ill-judged headlines that shows how out of touch she is with the public mood. Under Labour, we have had more women MPs than ever before, and more women in government. Yet their success rate in high office has been abysmal, largely through their own ineptitude. The demeaning departure of Jacqui Smith (porn and sink plugs), Hazel Blears (flipping homes) and Caroline Flint ("female window dressing") is kept fresh in our minds by the vengeful recriminations that continue to surface on chat shows or in interviews. Even the old guard – Patricia Hewitt, Estelle Morris, Margaret Hodge, Clare Short – displayed a general lack of achievement that lingers in our consciousness. So what made Miss Harman think that either sex would sympathise with her renewed demand that a woman should be guaranteed one of the top jobs in the party for reasons of equality rather than ability?
In fact, it rather throws the spotlight on Harriet herself – and makes you wonder what, other than a thick skin and a bludgeoning tenacity that wears others down, she brings to the Cabinet table.
To me, she belongs to a particular breed of Labour women who claim to have the best interests of other women at heart. In reality, their concern is rooted in a blinkered ideology that panders to a particular faction of their party, and is ultimately self-serving.
There is no question that Miss Harman has her eye on a forthcoming vacancy. But she may come to regret her outburst this week. It has alienated a majority of women, who know, instinctively or through experience, that without merit there can never be a meritocracy.