Tough girls don't cry -- they spin

Labour in London spins - but in Scotland, it is more of a reel. It is hard to keep a clear head in the dizzy whirl, and somebody always gets hurt.

The lass left with the bruises after the latest brutal bout of MacSpin is the Scottish Health Minister, Susan Deacon. She is the only casualty after a hurly-burly of self-promoting spin by various members of the Scottish Cabinet, who need no lessons from Downing Street practitioners in back-stabbing briefings.

A threat from the First Minister, Donald Dewar, that the culprits faced the sack has been interpreted as a humiliating public rebuke for Deacon. Her high-profile position has been undermined, and her potential as a possible successor to Dewar is being written off.

As she retires hurt from the shindig, everyone is asking whether Scotland is really ready for powerful women politicians. Or whether women are just not much good at spinning.

Deacon had been regarded as a much-needed talent in the Labour line-up. A party member from the age of 17, she took a degree in politics, served her time in local government and was the director of the MBA programme at Heriot-Watt University's business school.

However, her record as "a thorn in the flesh" of the party, from her confrontational days in student politics and her penchant for being on the "wrong" side on internal issues, counted against her. She had to go through the indignity of an appeal before she was added to the candidates' list for the Scottish Parliament elections. So it was even more astonishing that Deacon was catapulted into the Cabinet. At 35, she is its youngest member.

Cynics say that Dewar was doing her no favours, because health is the notorious no-win portfolio. Funding is never enough, waiting-lists are intractable, and it was not long before she was being called a "nutcase" by the Catholic Church's official spokesperson in a row over teenage sexual health clinics. Dewar's chief of staff, John Rafferty, lost his job after protectively spinning the story that police were investigating death threats against Deacon by anti-abortion groups. It made front-page headlines, but it was untrue.

Deacon's reaction to the winter flu crisis seemed too matter-of-fact and unsympathetic. Later, she complained: "Sometimes it seemed as though I was being held personally responsible for every individual case of flu in Scotland."

It was over NHS finance that Deacon found herself in the middle of the Cabinet's most damaging split so far. A £34m underspend in the Scottish NHS was taken back into the Scottish Executive's contingency fund to be redistributed by the Finance Minister, Jack McConnell, on, among other things, forestry and historic buildings. It was a publicity gift to the opposition and a cock-up that struck at Labour's core commitment to the health service.

The spin from the Deacon camp was that she was single-handedly battling to restore the money to the health budget. Enraged colleagues leaked that she attended the Cabinet meeting that took the decision, but failed to plead special status for health. When the Cabinet agreed the money should return to "health-related" projects, Deacon's supporters claimed she had won it back and was being pilloried for standing up for the NHS. The others sneered that she had boobed by giving it up in the first place and then had to beg it back.

As the spin-war spiralled out of control, Dewar - convalescing at his home in Glasgow - was appalled that the extra £500m being spent on the Scottish NHS had been overshadowed by infighting over £34m. Dewar has let it be known he will chair the next Cabinet meeting on 15 August, a month earlier than expected, and nobody doubts that the aim of his premature return is to reassert authority over his fractious team.

At a parliamentary group meeting, the Scottish Executive's Tom McCabe relayed the First Minister's personal threat that there would be sackings if the public feuding continued. The warning did not specify any individual, but within minutes the media were being briefed that Deacon was the target.

What it was really about was the suc-cession. McConnell is a leading contender and would have been damaged if he had been fingered as the Scrooge who took money from the sick. McCabe is increasingly seen as king-maker.

As soon as Deacon began to be talked about as future First Minister material, she also began to be labelled as "uppity", "bossy", "lippy" and "nakedly ambitious". In other words, all the things a male politician is allowed to be, but a woman dare not.

There is no doubt that Deacon has been actively promoted, especially through the TV and Scotland's broadsheet press. Since Dewar went into hospital, there have been interviews promoting Deacon as the mother of two-year-old Claire and the partner of John Boothman, a producer of BBC Scotland political programmes. We have learnt that she played in the Musselburgh and Fisherrow Trades Brass Band - no, not blowing her own trumpet, but the cornet and flugelhorn.

An attempt is also being made to por-tray Deacon as the battered woman politician, a victim of the "boys-will-be-boys" culture of briefing over a beer or a bottle. The Transport Minister, Sarah Boyack, and the Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander, have also been undermined by male ministers. Even the redoubtable Helen Liddell was scarred by her recent spell as a Scottish Office minister.

There is some truth in the perception that "uppity" women tend to be slapped down in the macho culture of Scottish Labour machine politics. But in the end, like all politicians, Deacon will have to live with her bruises. Or learn to birl with the best - or worst - of them.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky