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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Harriet Harman: the irresistible force

Is Harriet Harman the most successful politician of her generation?

As the year 1982 began, Harriet Harman had a plan. She was already the parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Peckham, where her 66-year-old predecessor, Harry Lamborn, had announced he was standing down. If she had a baby now, she could get back to work before the next general election the following year.

Once she was pregnant, she and her partner, the union official Jack Dromey, swallowed their qualms about the patriarchal institution of marriage, “for the sake of my parents and my constituency”. In her memoir, A Woman’s Work, she records the scene at Willesden Register Office, north London, in August 1982: “There was no wedding ring, no white dress, no flowers, no vowing to obey, no father giving me away. Neither my, nor Jack’s, parents were invited.” In fact, there were no guests at all – just two witnesses. Harman wore a hot-pink dress and made no effort to disguise her bump.

Immediately afterwards, the newlyweds set off for La Rochelle in south-western France, with Dromey stopping the car frequently so his new wife could lean out and be sick. Sitting by a lake in the sunshine, they found a three-day-old copy of the Times, which carried the headline: “Labour MP dies”. It was Harry Lamborn.

And so Harman contested the resulting by-election while five months pregnant. She says the campaign of her SDP challenger, Dick Taverne, tried to suggest this was a problem – but the strategy backfired when working-class women in the constituency pointed out that they’d held down a job while raising their children. (Taverne says this claim is untrue, and that in his election night speech he expressed his happiness that Harman’s pregnancy did not stop her being elected. “I did not approve of her political views at the time, which have somewhat changed,” he tells me now. “I have much admired her record since and wish she had become Labour leader. The party would not be in the desperate and tragic state it is now.”) 

On election night, Harman ended up babysitting for a woman on the Glebe Estate who had wanted to vote but whose husband was late home from work. “That was just one of so many encounters which reinforced in me the belief that I had a particular mandate from women, and that it mattered to them and was important that I was different from the men,” she writes.

In her Commons office overlooking the chocolate-box grandeur of Big Ben, I ask her if life became easier once she’d arrived in parliament aged 32. In 1982, there were only 19 female MPs: eleven from Labour, and eight from the Conservatives – including Margaret Thatcher. “I was expecting to come in with other women,” she says now. “And then it was me, pushing open that enormous door. You know the doors to the House of Commons, opposite the Speaker? They are so huge and heavy . . . it was like the women’s movement was this irresistible force, but meeting the implacable object of the House of Commons.” She remembers hundreds of men in grey suits, with an average age of 54, surrounding her in her red velvet maternity dress. “It was awful.”

In December 2016, the 66-year-old Harriet Harman became the longest continuously serving female MP. After the 2015 election, there were 191 women on the green benches, including 99 from Labour. Her memoir is one giant rebuke to those who would dismiss efforts for more equal representation as tokenism or anti-meritocratic. There is strength in numbers; the equalities agenda to which Harman has dedicated her life would have faltered without a movement behind it.

 

***

 

Harman now occupies a unique position in British politics. There is a faction of the right that finds her more irritating than almost any other politician from the Blair years, possibly because she is still around to annoy them. The work of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail encapsulates the charge sheet. She is posh: “Educated at St Paul’s, this scion of the Pakenham family has become the Gromyko of Camberwell”. She has aged: “Those cheeks (on her face) have lost some of their usual pouchy pulchritude,” he lamented in 2007. She is humourless and perpetually vexed, “the frumpish Lady Indignant” (2015). And above all, she is Harriet Harperson, “Britain’s most ear-drillingly insistent feminist” (2013).

Over the years, such attacks as these have been counterproductive. Whatever problems other women in the party had with Harman, they could see how unfairly she was treated. And for the next generation, her resilience in the face of endless brickbats was inspiring. Jess Phillips, who was elected the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, opens her book, Everywoman, with Harman warning her that being a public feminist means “you will never be popular”; she says it felt as if the older woman was passing on the baton. A review of both books by Julie Burchill favourably contrasted the “gobby Brummie” Phillips with the “bogus and bossy” Harman. But the 35-year-old says this misses the point. “I get to be me, because she was so derided for so long,” Phillips says. “It’s like: my mum had to moan about the patriarchy, whereas I get to be funny about the patriarchy.”

Phillips says that Harman’s strength came from rejecting the idea that women should be in competition with each other. “She said to me, ‘There’s no need for people to compare us. We’re from different generations. You’re like Deliciously Ella, and I was Delia.’ And it’s true! Like we are using limes now, it feels like we always had coconut milk in our lives, and now people like us can make curries. That’s what Harriet did: she brought flavour to the Labour Party. So now I get to have a cocktail.”

One of the most interesting questions to ask anyone in Labour is this: is Harriet Harman funny? Half of those you ask will say that she is. “She learned how to slay with a joke,” says a former staffer. “At home, she is fun, silly, warm,” says her daughter, Amy. Yet others see someone who has learned to smother her humour for fear of being misinterpreted or dismissed. “Her generation – including Jack – are a bit humourless,” says one woman in the current parliamentary party. “They couldn’t be funny, because ­being Labour was so hard in the 1980s.” ­Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South, puts it another way: “Women can’t be funny, because we’re already not taken seriously.”

The other criticism is that Harman is robotic – that she is typical of the control-freakery of the New Labour era, in which ministers were discouraged from thinking for themselves. “I can’t stand her,” one BBC producer told me recently. “She just parrots the line.” I put this to her: isn’t the rise of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, in their different ways, a reaction against her style of politics? Being loyal to the point of repetition has firmly gone out of fashion. “Yes, but it hasn’t in terms of what makes things work in politics,” she replies, crisply.

That loyalty has led to situations she now finds it uncomfortable to discuss. In her book, she mentions being sent out to defend Gordon Brown after Caroline Flint accused him of using women as “window dressing”. Soon afterwards, the prime minister revealed that – having refused to make Harman deputy PM despite her being deputy Labour leader – he had, in effect, given the job to Peter Mandelson, making him first secretary of state. So Flint was right, wasn’t she? Trying to explain her response, Harman’s already frequent use of the word “like” in conversation steps up a gear. At the end of it, she adds: “I was very careful not to criticise Caroline, and did words like, ‘We all want to make more progress.’”

I ask Flint how she felt about the incident. “Lonely and isolated”, she says. “Everything that Harriet has said since goes some way to vindicating what I was saying – you can have women around the table but unless they have meaningful influence, it feels like you’re there for the appearance only.” Nonetheless, Flint says that their relationship is now positive. “In shadow cabinet [under Ed Miliband], she did try to draw ­attention to some of the issues I was trying to raise about who we’re appealing to.”

For at least a year now, I’ve been putting a startling proposition to former and current Labour politicians, staffers and activists. Is Harriet Harman the most successful left-wing politician of her generation? She has dramatically increased the number of female MPs and ensured that women’s lives and needs are part of the political conversation. The Equality Act 2010, passed in the dying gasps of the Brown government, made significant demands on employers. They were no longer allowed to bar workers from comparing their pay; laws were brought in against age discrimination; positive action was allowed to increase the recruitment of minorities.

Its “Clause One” was so radical that it has still not been enacted. After all, it asked public bodies to strive to “reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage”. In other words, the public sector would have to take class into account in everything it did. (At the time, the journalist Polly Toynbee called it “socialism in one clause”.)

Harman regrets now that it was never enacted: “It would have been a big signal that class inequality is at the heart of what we’re concerned about.” But getting the bill passed at all was a struggle. Ayesha Haza­rika, who worked as Harman’s special adviser for women, compared the mood in her office to the film Cool Runnings, in which the Jamaican bobsleigh team improbably get to the Winter Olympics. “The civil servants said [the bill] was a mopping-up exercise, and she stood up and told them it wasn’t: it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something radical. Their faces were full of horror and disbelief.” Other parts of Whitehall, particularly the Department for Business, were obstructive. “I came back browbeaten by a load of male special advisers and she would say, ‘Ayesha, we will not take no for an answer.’”

 

***

 

Here’s an easy way to wind up a right-winger: tell them that Harriet Harman is an anti-establishment politician. Yes, like Nigel Farage, she is the product of a comfortable home – her father was a doctor and her mother was a lawyer – and attended private school. But during her early career, she challenged the male dominance of parliament, the Labour Party and lobby journalism. She tells me early on in our conversation that she has a challenge she wants to throw down: Labour should publish its gender pay gap. “Let’s not just be [saying] we believe in equality – let’s be prepared to confront what is going on. So in each workplace, the women and the men can see how they’re differently valued.”

Unsurprisingly, this willingness to criticise her own party’s structures has made her enemies. John Prescott couldn’t stand her, muttering as she walked back from winning the Labour deputy leadership that he wouldn’t help her. (By contrast, Alan Johnson – whom she beat by less than 1 percentage point for the role – wrote in his memoir that she was the better candidate.)

Now, she won’t be drawn on what Prescott’s problem was, though she contrasts him unfavourably with Johnson. “Alan is very unusual in that he can see the bigger picture, and knows what is the right thing to do, and the right thing is to pull people together if you’ve lost an election.” She then drops in a casual criticism of the kind that occurred so often in her book, I gave it a nickname: the Harriet drive-by. “And David Miliband didn’t do that.”

It is hard to recall, now that feminism is so mainstream, but during the 1980s Harman was regarded as a dull, single-issue crank. (Her maiden speech in the House was on childcare.) When she called for half of Labour MPs to be female, “all the men felt it was a personal attack on them”. When she returned to work after her first maternity leave, one of her colleagues reported her to the serjeant-at-arms for taking the baby through the division lobby under her coat. She had to explain to the official that, in fact, “I was still fat from being pregnant.” She now says that such behaviour “was like harassment, really” and it made her want to give up. “But I couldn’t leave, because it would have been literally sending out the message that women can’t hack it.”

She describes it as “a bit of a mortification” that the Conservatives have elected their second female leader before Labour has managed a single one. She prefers not to use Theresa May’s name, referring acidly to “her”, and is sceptical of May’s pledge, in her first speech outside Downing Street, to be a champion of equality. “It’s like how I felt when Margaret Thatcher said ‘let there be peace’ when she was causing absolute misery and division within and between communities . . . If you want to change things, and change them for the better, you don’t join the Tory party.” She believes most Conservative attempts to increase female representation spring from the realisation that it’s good PR. In 1997, when 101 female Labour MPs were elected, she says, the Tories realised “they were going to have electoral problems if they looked like the 1950s Politburo and we looked like today”.

Her book is clear on the highs and lows of politics. The lows include her sacking from her first cabinet job, and the highs include the back-room role of solicitor general, improving the conduct of domestic violence and rape trials. She survived the unbroken opposition of the 1980s with her drive intact, but admits that the party is once again in “wilderness years”. She adds: “What we learned in the 1980s is that there’s no point kidding yourself that things are better than they are . . . and you can’t just wait for people to get fed up with the Tories, because people were fed up with the Tories in the 1980s. I mean, Thatcher had become such a hate figure, they even had to get rid of her, but it still didn’t mean people came to us.”

Harman admits she has struggled throughout her career with the idea that she was a bad mother, though the culture of parliament did little to help. In 1989, she took her son to the cinema at half-term, only to receive a pager message asking her to stand in for the shadow health minister Robin Cook in the Commons. She decided not to reply and expected a reprimand when she later told him simply: “I was not available.” Instead he beamed at her and let her go. On her way out, she realised that he had assumed she was having an affair.

The incident taught her two things: first, that no one is indispensable (in the end, Frank Dobson stood in). Second, it showed the double standards of a male-dominated workplace: “It would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, [but] falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.”

She is still unashamedly maternal. Jess Phillips calls her “the mom of the Labour Party”. (Another female MP describes her as a “queen”, noting that her initials are HRH.) When I spent a day with her in 2015, Harman joked that she had subsumed her hunger for grandchildren into buying two Burmilla kittens, Minky and Silvio. Her daughter, Amy, is a classical musician, her older son, Harry, works at Channel 4, and Joe is a Labour councillor in south London. (The boys have their father’s surname, while Amy is a Harman.) Harman tried to shield them from the press interest in her life, though that wasn’t always possible. “I never found it weird seeing her on TV,” says Amy now. “But once, a classmate said that their dad told them that my mum hated men. And I was like, ‘She likes my brothers and my dad!’”

A frequent criticism is that Harman’s brand of feminism focuses too much on women like her. “She’s always employed women in her office,” says a Labour staffer. “But mostly they are quite privileged. I don’t know if she doesn’t see it, or if she just thinks it’s not her job.” One female Labour MP says “if you’re in her gang, she’s a tiger. But if you’re not, it can be quite brutal.”

Another former staffer describes a story about a Glasgow housing estate that circulated during the Gordon Brown years. “The story is that Harriet is door-knocking and a guy comes to answer in a football shirt, drinking a can of beer. And she asks him what he’s up to, and he says, ‘Watching the horses’. And she replies, ‘Oh, showjumping?’”

The story is almost certainly untrue – it has the same structure as the one told about Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas in a chip shop for guacamole – but the person who told it to me said it persisted because of its fundamental truth. Yet even if Harman is posh, she’s not elitist. “I’ve been out with other politicians who wouldn’t have got out of the car in that kind of estate,” he said.

This perception of her class privilege has made her life more difficult. When I ask Alison McGovern why so many people hate Harman, she replies, “There’s a simple answer to that: because she’s a woman. The more complicated answer is: because if you’re a working-class man, you feel she hasn’t struggled in the way you have.” This tension is a running theme between the trade union movement – long dominated by men – and left-wing feminism. “If the Labour Party’s central job is to raise wages at the bottom of the income distribution, right now that’s women,” adds McGovern. “The care sector, the hospitality sector – those are dominated by women.”

This chimes with my memories of shadowing Harman on the much-mocked “Woman to Woman” tour during the 2015 election – you know, the one with the notorious Pink Bus, which she insisted was actually “one-nation magenta”. It felt totally different from the rallies and set-piece speeches that otherwise dominate election campaigns; at one point, we ended up in a café in Leamington Spa, passing round an adorable baby as the child’s mother told us how she was struggling to find work that fitted around her ability to find childcare. Harman listened intently.

 

***

 

There is a strange circularity to Harriet Harman’s front-bench career. It began in 1997, under Tony Blair, when she was made minister for social security. From the start, the appointment was troubled. She was also minister for women and equality, and her department resented half her focus being elsewhere. Turf wars broke out: the Home Office wanted to lead on domestic violence, while David Blunkett at Education wanted to be in charge of childcare. Her deputy at Social Security, Frank Field, had been working on benefits reform from the back benches and, Harman says, saw her as a “Blairite loyalist”. It also transpired that Blair had given Field the impression that Harman was merely keeping the seat warm until he could become secretary of state.

Her downfall came through a manifesto pledge: Gordon Brown as chancellor had committed Labour to observing Tory spending limits for the first two years in government. So she had to cut benefits for lone parents by £6 a week. By 1998, in the middle of press reports about her uselessness, she realised she was a dead woman walking. “I could even sense my diary secretary hesitating to schedule appointments,” she writes in the book. She was duly sacked in the next reshuffle. (Frank Field
resigned rather than be moved to another department, and has remained on the back benches ever since.) “What I should have done is made it not just my problem but everybody’s problem,” she says now. “If I’d had the energy and the political experience, I never would have got into that position.”

But fast-forward to the summer of 2015, when Harman – now acting leader – was again confronted with a manifesto pledge to match Conservative welfare cuts. The “benefits cap”, restricting the maximum amount a household can claim, was in Ed Miliband’s programme for government and was incorporated into the Tory welfare bill after he lost the election. Harman decided that the party would abstain on the second reading, call for amendments, and then vote against on the third reading. She intended this to send a signal to the party’s core working-class vote, which felt that Labour was a soft touch on welfare.

The move backfired. The abstention was seized upon by the left in the party to demonstrate that Labour was “pro-austerity” and “Tory-lite”. The leadership contenders in the cabinet had to vote with the whip, while, on the back benches, Jeremy Corbyn was free to oppose the bill at both readings. The decision is often credited with giving him the momentum he needed to win the leadership. (Ironically, Corbyn ordered MPs to vote for triggering Article 50 on its second reading because of a similar political calculation: it was unpopular with Labour members but popular with swing voters.)

Does Harman now regret her decision? “It was jumped on because there was a mood in the party to swing to the left,” she says. If not that issue, she believes that discontent would have crystallised around something else. “A lot of people were disaffected when we were still in government. That had grown, but because we only lost narrowly in 2010, and there was only a coalition, it was masked by people still hoping that we would get in. But once it was evident we weren’t, it was like ‘We told you so’ . . . repressed resentment, anger, disappointment just burst out.”

Ayesha Hazarika believes that there was no right decision: “She felt she was taking a personal hit, but she was trying to show the voters we had listened.” In any case, the mood inside Labour HQ was already bleak. “When Ed Miliband resigned, it was so fast. Ed Balls had lost his seat. We’d lost Scotland. Everyone was in tears in Victoria Street. Harriet said: ‘Go into the bathroom, dry your tears; we’ve got work to do. We’ve got a party to keep together.’ I thought it was harsh but it was so right.” Hazarika ­believes this is why the welfare vote will not cloud Harman’s legacy. “They see her as a trouper, even people who don’t like her.”

Alison McGovern also sees her as someone willing to subsume her ego into a movement. “Harmanism isn’t a thing . . . It’s why she’s been successful, but it’s also why she hasn’t been credited.” Jess Phillips agrees. “Unlike many high-flyers in the Blair government, Harriet has won at politics. With Blair or Brown, their legacies – regardless of the good that they did – are terrible. Look in the Commons and you can physically see the difference made by Harriet.”

Harriet Harman will be in conversation with Jackie Ashley at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 22 April 2017.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again