Harriet Harman is reflecting on her gravity-defying comeback, from being sacked in a dispute over welfare reform in 1998 to being elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in 2007 and leading Labour through a testing transition period following the election defeat in May. She is able, now, to laugh: asked if she remembers what it was like to have left government so early in New Labour's period in office, she turns her fingers into inverted commas and chuckles. "Yes, I 'left'. Suddenly the door was opened and . . ." She trails off and then recalls: "It was awful being sacked - obviously it is, especially if it is high profile. That was hard. But I actually did a lot of things that I felt were really worth doing when I was on the back benches.
“It was good to be back in government: being solicitor general [2001-2005] was a fantastic opportunity, and then being deputy leader was just amazing. And then acting leader. So it's been quite a roller-coaster . . . And I suddenly realised that I'm the only one left; Nick Brown and I are the only two left from that first cabinet. Everyone else is gone: Tony, Gordon, Alistair, Jack."
Even by Westminster standards, hers is an impressive story. From the back of the pack, Harman beat Alan Johnson and four others to the post of Labour deputy leader with little financial backing. And, as acting leader, she has galvanised party morale, overseen a rise for Labour in the polls to the point where it is neck and neck with the Tories, and given David Cameron a run for his money at Prime Minister's Questions. Doesn't she have any regrets about declining to stand for the permanent leadership? Harman is certain: "No, I don't." She adds: "I could either have been a leadership candidate or been acting leader; I don't think I could have done both."
Instead, her role has been to "hand over to the new leader for them to take the situation forward. It was a great thing to get to be deputy leader in the first place." She claims she "never" planned to stand. And Labour MPs are universally grateful to Harman for her decision to serve as caretaker and ensure the party did not implode during its first properly contested leadership contest since Michael Foot became leader in 1980.
Now, not only has Harman survived the two men who brutally forced her out in 1998 - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - but, as the elected deputy leader, she will remain one of the most powerful people in the party. And she has been joined this year on the Commons benches by her husband, Jack Dromey, the outgoing party treasurer and a controversial figure because of his role in the "cash-for-peerages" affair. Dromey revealed in 2006 that he was unaware of certain loans from those who were made peers by Blair. In a recent interview to publicise his memoirs, Blair was asked if Harman had been "implicated in his destabilisation", to which the reply was: "The answer is that I honestly don't know. I just don't."
Harman is resolute in her denial. "I absolutely did not talk to Gordon about Jack as treasurer and what he was doing on the loans for peerages at all, in any shape or form, and neither did Jack - and the idea that somehow Jack and I were in a plot with Gordon against Tony is completely, completely not true. But I think it's a reflection of quite how bad the relationship had become between the two of them that Tony saw shadows where there weren't [any] and I think that's a real shame, because it's absolutely not true."
On the subject of Brown, some party insiders say that Harman had an opportunity to tell him to leave office in January, during the coup attempt by her former cabinet colleagues Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. Looking back, does she feels should she have done so? Harman says no, and puts the party's difficulties at that time into context to explain her thinking.
“There are three overriding things there. First is that the country was still in the middle of a grave economic situation and to have a leadership crisis in the middle of government, in the middle of people worrying about whether their jobs are going to go . . ." She trails off again. "So, there's a huge economic crisis. The second thing was that, because of that, there was no general view in the party that Gordon needed to be pushed out of office. And third, Gordon was very determined to take his responsibilities as prime minister seriously and see the country through the recession."
Discipline and punish
Brown made a rare reappearance at Westminster on 17 September when the Pope addressed MPs and others inside parliament. The former prime minister talked to hardly anyone, but could be seen leaning back in intense conversation with Harman. She insists that there was no gossiping. "We were talking about the Millennium Development Goals and the work that was going on in New York. We just had a brief chat; it was a very formal occasion."
Brown's leadership may be in the past, but his influence remains: MPs worry that he is seeking to maintain a stranglehold on the party. Nick Brown, a close ally of the former prime minister, succeeded this month in ensuring that chief whips will be elected for five-year terms. The fear is that Nick Brown will win the election and act as a focal point for dissent. But Harman is unrepentant about the change.
“I think the chief whip being elected is a good thing, actually. In government, there's masses of patronage, and that helps discipline . . . In
opposition, you don't have that . . . therefore it's much harder to have unity and coherence in opposition, [which could be created by] a chief whip who is elected by the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and can say: 'Look, you may not like it, but you elected me and I am going to make sure you all vote this way.' I think it's very important that the chief whip have authority from the PLP, and not just the leader, because the chief whip can't say to the PLP: 'The leader's told me to get your backsides into this division lobby.' It doesn't work that way."
More broadly, Harman is pleased that the leader will not be able to appoint unelected members of the shadow cabinet. "I think the shadow cabinet being elected is absolutely essential, and I'm extremely glad that we rejected the business of not [doing so]." It is only on the question of a quota for women that she is frustrated, having campaigned for 50 per cent representation and ended up with a third. "Obviously, I would have liked to have seen 50-50, but I think there is a clear move in the PLP for more progress. And I think we are going to have eight [female members of the shadow cabinet], which is double what we had in government and double what the Tories have got."
In the newly formed shadow cabinet, will Harman act as the "conscience of the party" - a label once applied to Clare Short - and perhaps as an alternative focal point to the new leader? She dismisses the notion. "I think the idea that somebody takes it upon themselves to be the conscience of the party is slightly nauseating, really. We're all the conscience of the party, not against each other, but on behalf of the party.
“[I've] had the luxury of seeing all the leadership candidates' strengths since I'm not going to be voting . . . that's put me in the right place in my head to be working seamlessly with the new leader." And turning her sights on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, she warns: "It is very important for us to mount a determined, forensic opposition. We've got a very important job to do - all hands on deck."
The Clegg effect
Some reports have floated the idea of Harman taking on a key shadow cabinet role - shadow home secretary, for example - in addition to her duties as deputy leader. So will she have a dual role? "Probably I will," she concedes, adding: "I'm not willing to share it with you; I'll share
it with whoever is the new leader!"
She believes she will be leaving the party in comparatively good shape for that new leader. "I remember last time when we were in opposition after a general election defeat [in 1979], and . . . I can remember how crushed a party can be when it loses. I can remember that vividly, and I was in the House both when the Tories lost and when we lost. I didn't want the Tories to get away with murder while our spirits were low. Of course, it made a huge difference that we had prevented them from getting an overall majority, but there was still that prospect that Labour could lose its purpose.
“We have made up the gap in the polls in terms of votes cast. We have 33,000 new members. Half of the 33,000 new members are people who were already Labour supporters and who felt, when they saw Cameron get into No 10, that voting was no longer enough. That's what they tell me: 'Voting's not enough, I've got to step up to the plate.' Others are previous Labour members, and one recently told me, 'The Iraq war drove me out of the party, but Nick Clegg drove me back in.'"
About the Lib Dems, who have just completed their annual party conference, Harman is scathing. Have they "sold out"? “Totally. The leaders have, and I think that people at the local level are dismayed and they are lost . . . They were a party of protest - they're not even the party of protest any more. What are they a party of?
“But I don't think [their leaders' view is] shared by many of the councillors or the Lib Dem voters, who actually are dismayed at what the Tories are doing and can't work out why on earth the Lib Dems should be allowed to do it."
Which points, surely, to a winnable general election next time for Labour. Harman won't be drawn. "The thing about elections is it depends on the voters, and I never like to take the voters for granted. But, actually, what the Tories are doing is bad for the country; I think it is very unfair and people are going to suffer a lot. We are going to be a responsible and effective opposition."
Yet there is no doubting what Harman sees as her political legacy, even if she is modest about it - the cause of women's rights. "I always think it's a bit grandiose when people talk about their own legacy. But I've been in politics at a time when there's been a revolution in women's lives and women's role in society. I've felt it's my responsibility to speak up for women who want to make progress in their lives, as part of tackling unfairness and poverty and social injustice. It's been a particularly transformative period in women's lives.
“If you think, when I was first elected, there was only 3 per cent women MPs and 97 per cent men; now there's 20 per cent. In a way, it shows you what outsiders women were to decision-making. And yet women wanted to contribute, had so much to contribute, needed to be earning a living.
“So, I think I've been a kind of voice in women's lives - women trying to bring up their children, trying to look after elderly parents and trying to do well in their work."
Harman says Labour's own progress has been mixed. "There's still a big majority of men in the PLP and in the shadow cabinet, but we are making progress and there are some very good women elected as chairs of select committees. Compared to 20 years ago, we are streets ahead; but compared to where we need to be, we have a long way to go."
She remains a heroine to equality campaigners, not just because of her work on women's rights, but because of the Equality Act 2010, for which she is personally responsible. With its measures promoting equality between people of different genders, sexualities, races, ages and abilities, the act will transform the nature of Britain's workplaces and public services. Even now, the Fawcett Society and others are using the stipulations of the act to mount a legal challenge against the coalition's spending plans, which they claim will penalise women disproportionately. The Equality Act has thus become a success in the face of fierce Conservative opposition, and Harman is on the alert for coalition plans to destabilise the settlement.
“It is very important that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is not cowed by the government," she says, "and very important that the commission makes sure the new government does not breach its statutory requirements. The Equality Act depends on real, principled determination by the commission to make sure that the act, which is on the statute book, is not ignored by the government. I mean, there's every sign that they are [ignoring the new law], because it doesn't look as though they've done an equality assessment for the Budget. So, we'll see. Obviously, it is very important the commission stands up to them on the Budget, and obviously we will be backing them all the way."
Harman is often mocked in the media as "Harriet Harperson" for her "politically correct" views. How does she cope with such attacks? “I don't spend much time looking over my shoulder and thinking about the press. If I'd spent the last few years doing that I wouldn't have had time for anything else. There's been plenty to be chewing on there, certainly. I just have to get on with it . . . Obviously, you have to think very carefully about what you do, but if you're thinking that 'I'd better not do this because the press might . . . because they did before' . . . that's no way to go, really."
Harman's resilience in the face of what many feel has been unfair excoriation by the media has only boosted her standing in the eyes of gender activists, equality campaigners and female politicians in Britain. "Women in government are still a minority - we're a critical mass now, but we are still a minority, and the press is still very male-dominated, particularly the political press," she says. "There's a shared understanding and a shared culture between the men in the [parliamentary] Press Gallery and the men in the House of Commons, and that leaves many women as outsiders.
“But I think that, for a lot of women, it's still the work-family balance that is as much of a challenge as the constantly being slagged off by the press. And there are a lot of men who get a very hard time from the press as well."
She continues: "It's a very tough relationship, the relationship between press and politics. Sometimes it's necessary that it should be like that, because it's about scrutiny, and sometimes it's just unfair and goes over the top. But actually, personally, I've just got on with it."
At the end of our interview, Harman indicates she will one day offer up her own version of events during her colourful political career in book form - but not yet. "Well, I don't think men should be the only ones having a say," she insists. "So, yeah, I definitely will write something at some stage. But that is the kind of thing you do when you leave, and I am just getting into my stride."
Additional reporting by Laurie Penny
Harriet Harman: The CV
1982 Enters House of Commons following victory in the Peckham by-election
1984 Becomes Labour's front-bench spokeswoman for social services
1992 Enters shadow cabinet as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury (1992-94). Later serves as shadow employment secretary (1994-95), shadow health secretary (1995-96) and shadow social security secretary (1996-97)
1997 Enters the cabinet as secretary of state for social security
1998 Is sacked after a series of rows with Frank Field and a high-profile decision to cut lone-parent benefits
2001 Appointed solicitor general
2007 Stands for, and is elected, deputy leader of the Labour Party
2007 Returns to cabinet under Gordon Brown as leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal and minister for women and equality
2010 Becomes acting leader of the Labour Party after Brown's resignation following election defeat, but soon announces decision not to stand for leadership of the party. Represents Labour during Prime Minister's Questions