TO commemorate 100 years since Nancy Astor became the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, last week Good Morning Britain gathered six female politicians, past and present, to discuss their ‘experiences of being women in government’.
The guests evidently were expected to snivel about structural inequality and bemoan the biases which they had to overcome. Unfortunately for that intended narrative, the producers made the mistake of inviting Ann Widdecombe and Edwina Currie, both of whom were wonderfully dissentient.
The panellists were first asked by presenters Ben Shepherd and Ranvir Singh to imagine ‘what Nancy Astor must have gone through just to take that step into parliament’. Astor must have been ‘very brave’, empathised Margaret Beckett, for whom the atmosphere for women at Westminster had been ‘hostile and off-putting’.
Ann Widdecombe’s rejoinder was characteristically blunt: ‘Yes, but if you go into politics you know you’re not going into a Sunday school tea party. You are going into a place where there will be hostility . . . and I’m going to say, to get it in very quickly, I do not care how many women there are in parliament, all I care about is the quality of those women.’
Another guest was Sayeeda Warsi, introduced as the ‘first Muslim woman in cabinet’. Naturally, it went unsaid that Warsi reached parliament and government without the tiresome business of winning an election: her ‘achievement’ was to obtain the patronage of a man, David Cameron, who appointed her to the Lords when she was just 36.
For once, the Baroness made a television appearance without accusing anyone of ‘Islamophobia’. She did, however, stress: ‘It’s important for the House of Commons to look like it represents the people of the country as a whole.’
Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine agreed that parliament must ‘send the right message to the country’ and historically has ‘looked like a boys’ club . . . grey-suited men everywhere’.
To which Edwina Currie pointed out that this had in fact given her the upper hand: ‘I found it a great advantage being a woman in the House of Commons back in the days when there were only a handful of us . . . we were much more visible. I think we got a lot more attention than an equivalent man might have done.’
Edwina did indeed receive much attention, especially from John Major. Ann Widdecombe concurred with her former Conservative colleague that being female had been a help, not a hindrance: ‘At that time both major parties were trying desperately to promote women. We were actually competing in a smaller pool and there was a real advantage there . . . unless you were pretty hopeless, you were not at a disadvantage.’
This was not what the presenters expected to hear. In hope, they turned to Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP who earlier this year postponed having a caesarean delivery to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The explanation she gave GMB, which appeared to be entirely serious, was: ‘I delayed the birth of my child so we could have a closer relationship with Europe.’
Siddiq voted while in a wheelchair, a predicament which at the time garnered much sisterly sympathy and outrage on her behalf. Not from Ann Widdecombe, who reminded the group that not only female MPs find themselves in a fix: ‘It’s worth pointing out that the men also have those dilemmas. I can remember during the Maastricht debate some of the men coming in on stretchers, giving up timed operations . . . it’s not just the women.’
By then, the beleaguered hosts felt it necessary to restate the purpose of the item: ‘We are celebrating women in parliament today.’ Naturally, Ann paid no heed to the reminder and ploughed on: ‘I think it’s so important that women don’t always sound as if they’ve got a massive grievance. I was delighted to get into parliament. I got there without the help of all-women shortlists and all the rest of it. So did Mrs Thatcher. So did Edwina Currie. So did Margaret [Beckett] . . . we felt as we came through those doors that we were on exact equality with men.’
If the hosts hoped Edwina Currie would be more acquiescent, they were to be disappointed. At times Edwina has been a shameless self-publicist; nonetheless, her willingness to rebel often has been admirable, for example regarding the supposed epidemic of sexual harassment at Westminster.
Incidentally, I had been under the misapprehension that Currie, formerly a devotee of the EU, was estranged from the Conservative cause. For this election, she is most definitely back in the blue corner.
Invited to comment on what the presenters presumed to be the unique challenges faced by women, Edwina rejected the premise: ‘The biggest challenge, and the one we haven’t heard anything about so far, is actually looking after your constituents. You go in the House of Commons and think you’re the big I-am; you go to the advice bureau on a Friday evening or Saturday morning and you’re faced with all sorts of issues, most of which you have never experienced, and you’ve got to try to help these people. That’s why I object a little to the idea that women MPs are victims or in some way weaker characters.’
But, Edwina, surely you must be concerned that so many women seem to be leaving politics? ‘I don’t buy into that,’ she retorted, ‘there are actually more men that have left politics and they tend to have been serving a lot longer.’
Edwina was equally indifferent to female MPs receiving abuse on social media: ‘We were at serious risk from the IRA during the time I was in politics. Five colleagues, five members of parliament were murdered by the IRA, we were all at risk the whole time. If you’re a public figure like that, you are going to be subject to a lot of intimidation, and sometimes to threats.’
Putting in perspective troublesome tweets was Currie’s final contribution. Margaret Beckett then babbled that all-women shortlists had been vitally important, which prompted Tulip Siddiq to utter the dreaded words: ‘I just want to come in about intersectionality . . .’
Ann Widdecombe reacted with a sideways look; alas, the camera cut away and viewers were left to imagine the look on Ann’s face as Tulip prattled: ‘We also have to look at where the women are coming from, what kind of class, what colour they are, what university . . .’
Zzzz . . . Thankfully, Widdecombe remained sufficiently alert to provide a peroration which was magnificently off-message: ‘Very straightforwardly, women get there on their own merits. That is the only basis on which they should get there. And I do not care how many, women, ethnics, gays, old folks, young folks, ginger-headed folks are there: merit only should be the criterion.’
What Westminster does lack, however, is a courageously unfashionable 72-year-old woman. The good people of Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, a constituency which voted 54.4 per cent Leave, can remedy that on December 12 by voting for the Brexit Party candidate.
The heresies expressed on Good Morning Britain by both Ann Widdecombe and Edwina Currie can be enjoyed here.