In defence of Edwina Currie, the woman who dared
Alan Clark was celebrated as a loveable old rogue after the many scandalous revelations in his diari
In 1987, I was asked by Company magazine to interview Edwina Currie, then a Tory minister, for an article on mothers and daughters. Together with a photographer, I went off to the House of Commons. Currie was lively and brisk. She discussed her daughter's many accomplishments with touching motherly pride. She posed eagerly for the photographer - flashing a big smile after carefully adjusting her jacket. And then I had to cough, slightly embarrassed, and remind her that she had two daughters and could she kindly give me a few words about the second? They came, grudgingly. I was taken aback - and when the photographer and I visited the ladies' room on our way out of the House, I let rip: what kind of a mum was that? I had never heard such favouritism! The two of us agreed that we couldn't imagine anything worse than being the less-favoured daughter. Whereupon we exited our stalls to find Edwina Currie at the basin washing her hands. She didn't say a word, merely continued to dry her hands. Then, with a small, cool smile at our reflections in the mirror, sailed off, head held high.
Insults, ostracism, even rotten eggs - Edwina Currie has survived them all. As a female politician, a Jew who married outside her faith, a bestselling author of bonkbusters, she has raised eyebrows and hackles throughout her life. The years of practice will serve her well in the next few weeks, as her revelations of an adulterous affair with John Major make her the target of irate Tories and fire-and-brimstone tabloids. Already, she has been subjected to bitching from that fragrant cuckold, Mary Archer: "I am surprised . . . at the temporary lapse in John Major's taste." She's been called a traitor by Tories who claim her kiss-and-tell diary risks killing off their moribund party. Even that gentleman of unimpeachable reputation, David Mellor, had to give his twopennyworth - "Trollop!" he screeched.
But Edwina will no doubt rise above them all. She will rake in the millions - the diary will sell like hot cakes, the bonkbusters will be reprinted for their roman a clef possibilities - and spend more time in her new house in France with her new husband, John (a former Met officer).
The former minister will shrug off the stinging attacks, knowing that those who round on her do so because she has exposed not herself, but them. Her diary reveals a prime minister and a Tory party steeped in hypocrisy, a parliamentary system that marginalises women and strains family ties, and a nation that - even in the 21st century - judges its citizens by double standards.
With her chronicle of their passionate (three-hour sessions with strawberry and cream), four-year (1984-88), adulterous (he was married to Norma, she to Ray) affair, Edwina has stripped the mask of probity from John Major. Here was a man lumbered with such a grey and dull public persona that everyone thought he must be virtuous. Far from it, as she has shown. In fact, the "B" who emerges from Edwina's dirty linen was a nasty piece of work: launching a "back to basics" campaign that purported to uphold family values - while knowing that he himself had committed adultery; watching eight members of his party pilloried by the press for their sexual escapades - without so much as lifting a finger in their assistance. With his lover, Major was no better: the second he sniffed that No 10 was within his grasp, he became self-obsessed and detached, turning their pillow talk into rehearsals for his speeches. Once in power, he kept Edwina at arm's length.
But Edwina has not just discredited a former prime minister and his agenda: she has exposed parliamentary life for the male-centred, clubby existence it continues to be. Ninety-six Labour female MPs and 14 Conservative female MPs have failed to feminise Westminster. The schedule (debates go on well into the early hours of the morning), facilities (not a creche or nappy-changing table in sight) and working practice (boozy after-hour bonding sessions) place a strain on family life. Women in politics have to relegate husbands and partners to the back burner - which, naturally, is where politicians' wives have been simmering for centuries. Yet while the wives were expected to lie about their happiness and lie back and think of England, the men left behind earn everyone's sympathy - or at least every tabloid journalist's pity. "The cuckolding of Ray Currie" ran in the Mail, describing in excruciating detail "the terrible humiliation heaped upon Edwina's long-suffering" ex.
The loneliness of long-distance relationships with husband and children, of weekdays in session spent in a rented (few can afford to buy) flat near Westminster - it is all part of the politician's job description. And Edwina, as the psychiatrist and author Susie Orbach points out, "belonged to that generation of women politicians who did not join forces to challenge the system; rather they saw their predicament as an individual burden that could only be resolved on their own".
The loneliness may not account for every parliamentary affair, but it is palpable in Edwina's diary. "Wish I could talk more to Ray but non-political spouses don't understand our love affairs with politics." And again: "My husband . . . didn't seem interested in what I was trying to do." Clearly, it was not careerism but a desire for companionship that prompted her to seek out John.
Edwina's loneliness at Westminster was due in part also to her background: she was a Jewish Liverpudlian, married to no one fancier than an accountant. In the pukka gentleman's club atmosphere of Westminster under the Tory governments of Thatcher and Major, she was deemed irredeemably non-U. Her bold manner, predatory ways and (diluted but recognisable) northern accent proclaimed her a vulgarian, a woman of the people rather than a lady of twinset and pearls like her colleagues Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shephard.
But Edwina was driven: despite the class prejudice (and possibly the anti-Semitism), despite the Boys' Own mentality, she clawed her way up the greasy ladder of Tory politics. From Birmingham councillor (1975-86), she became MP for South Derbyshire in 1983 (a post she held until 1997). She was PPS to Thatcher's beloved Sir Keith Joseph at the Department of Education and Science. From 1986-88, she was minister at the Department of Health and Social Security. She campaigned to raise awareness of heart disease, cancer screening and healthy lifestyles. Articulate, plucky, energetic and unashamedly populist - not to mention telegenic: you would have thought Edwina was just the kind of politician to liven up the Tories and give them a bit of high street cred. But her in-your-face personality and flashy gestures (she once brandished a set of handcuffs to urge the home secretary to lock up more criminals) had the Tory grandees looking down their noses at the jumped-up little tart who was making all that noise.
The party chose to ignore her. No one else could. An Economist poll published in 1988 found that she was the most recognisable face in Margaret Thatcher's government (her lover was still "John who?"). By the time she resigned over salmonella later that year (she'd blown the whistle on food hygiene before all the studies had been completed), she was a household name.
Edwina being Edwina, she capitalised on her B-celeb status, first by writing a string of bestselling novels (her debut, A Parliamentary Affair, went straight to No1) whose sex, politics and indiscretions now read like a fictional test run for her diary; then, having proved that she could give the people what they wanted, with a Radio 5 Live show called Late Night Currie.
A lot of graft coupled with a lot of chutzpah: in any other field, this combination ensures success. Not in British politics, though; or at least not if you're a woman in British politics. Be determined and you'll be branded pushy; bounce back and you'll be called unscrupulous; show business savvy and you'll be accused of being greedy. It's a lose-lose situation that explains why lively free spirits like Mo Mowlam and Edwina Currie throw in the towel after a while. In the end, they know, Westminster is still a man's world where an Edwina is pilloried for vices that in a man are seen as virtues. Alan Clark writes a diary that reads like Don Juan's catalogue of conquests (including a romp with a judge's wife and her two daughters) and confesses to slavering over underage schoolgirls - but he is hailed as a swordsman. Many male politicians simultaneously rely and cheat on their wives. But they are never branded as trollops who abuse their spouses and cheat their children of parental care.
Living with this kind of humbug must tax even the strongest party loyalties. "Edwina has confirmed the Tories' worst suspicion of the woman as untrustworthy - incapable of the collegial spirit that is essential in any party," says a businesswoman who has been considering standing for selection as a Tory. Yet is it any wonder that women who are consistently marginalised, muzzled and mocked turn whistle-blowers?
The edwina.currie.co.uk website glories in a photo of Edwina in a red sequinned dress, reclining on a white sofa. The word "Enter . . ." beckons naughtily from a corner of the screen. It's crass and vulgar and not very ladylike. But then Edwina is no lady - she is a woman. And what a woman.