Profile: Harriet Harman

Divisive but on the rise: does she want the top job?

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She is the most powerful woman in the country, loved and loathed in equal measure. She's pushing through controversial and ideologically driven legislation. And she yields to no one in her fight for what she wants.

She may have a distinctly racy side, as shown by a speeding fine last week, but it is no wonder Harriet Harman is sometimes described as Labour's answer to Margaret Thatcher.

What a change a couple of years has produced. Before she won the deputy leadership of the party in 2007, Harman had been virtually written off in Westminster. Ruthlessly sacked early in Tony Blair's government after a dispute over welfare, this cousin of aristocrats who maddened Alastair Campbell by sending her children to private schools provoked nothing but sneers and raised eyebrows in New Labour's laddish circles. "She's not up to it," they would whisper, in the classic formula used about female politicians.

But then, as if out of nowhere, Harman beat even Alan Johnson to the post of Labour deputy leader after starting her campaign as an outsider, with almost no financial backing. In June 2007, she was appointed Leader of the Commons and minister for women and equality. And now, this niece of Lord Longford enjoys unprecedented influence as -- crucially -- the one member of Gordon Brown's cabinet who has been directly elected by party members. She may have borne this in mind on Wednesday afternoon when she walked into Brown's Downing Street office and demanded that he adopt a more collegiate style of governing.

Harman is one of the few winners from last week's failed coup attempt against Brown. A close friend of Patricia Hewitt, one of the two MPs calling for a secret ballot into Brown's leadership, she is alleged to have known it was coming and used it as a bargaining chip with which to assert herself over the vulnerable Prime Minister. Her office, however, denies this. Said to be concerned that she is being "shut out" -- along with the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander -- she has certainly sought clarity on her role in planning the strategy for the forthcoming election.

And now, amid reports that one of her nemeses, Ed Balls, has been reluctantly reined in by Brown, Harman is on the ascendant. Indeed, the prospect of a Harman leadership is no longer a joke in Westminster.

Unfazed

Ironically, it is said to have been Balls -- or people around him -- who tried to flush out her leadership ambitions last year, or so some people around Harman believe. A bizarre story appeared in May asserting that she would be a candidate, in a paper with which Balls enjoyed close relations. Within hours, she had been forced on to the television news, where she explicitly denied that she would ever be a candidate.

At the time, some in Harman's fanatically loyal band of supporters in the Labour Party were in despair, fearing the footage would be replayed in a contest. But time has again been the great healer for her, and few remember that incident now. Similarly, she was said to have whispered to aides, "This is my moment," and to have plotted after Labour's disastrous defeat in the Glasgow East by-election last year. In fact, this is unfair: by chance, I was with her in Warwick in the wake of that defeat, and -- looking the height of cool in a large pair of designer sunglasses -- Harman was as loyal to Brown in private as she is in public.

Since then, she has shown an impressively unfazed temperament, besting that accomplished debater, William Hague, when the deputies were standing in at Prime Minister's Questions. And she has doggedly pursued her groundbreaking Equalities Bill, which -- with its measures promoting gender and racial parity -- will undoubtedly change the nature of Britain's workplaces for ever.

Equality legislation is the cause of her life. Harman can laugh at her nickname, "Harriet Harperson", but she takes her politics seriously: she has two sons and a daughter by Jack Dromey, the Labour Party treasurer whom she married in 1982. All three children bear her surname.

Suddenly, and to the horror of her opponents, inside the party and without, this powerful feminist is fast emerging as an unlikely favourite to succeed Brown, should Labour lose the next election. This is not just because, as in the case of Michael Foot, and more recently Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, parties tend to look inward after suffering defeat in an election. Nor is it just because Harman is perceived as a left-winger who would benefit from union support secured through her husband. It is also thanks to the specific circumstances surrounding her putative opponents.

Balls, her main rival on the centre left, is seen as a "bully" and is too much disliked within the parliamentary party to win. David Miliband, albeit unfairly, is seen as too "Blairite". Ed Miliband is unsure whether to run. And Alan Johnson? Well, she beat him last time.

A Harman candidacy would surely divide the party as her leadership would divide the country. She is particularly loathed by "Blarites" on the right of Labour. And John Prescott can barely say her name without uttering an expletive. Nonetheless, were she to run, she would be likely to pick up considerable support from party members and MPs alike -- quite possibly more than David Miliband. Her style would almost certainly be more appreciated than that of Balls.

The wild card for Harman is Ed Miliband, who started his career as her parliamentary researcher. If he stood -- and it remains an if -- he would absorb much of her support. But what if Harman somehow slipped through the middle, as she did in 2007? She is the politician much of Middle England loves to hate -- especially women. Her leadership would help the Tories portray the opposition as lurching back into "Old Labour".

Strong feelings

On the other hand, David Cameron, if he becomes prime minister, is likely to face a backlash from the electorate in tackling the Budget deficit with savage cuts. The Tories would not be invulnerable. There is every chance that Harman would be as effective a debater against Cameron in the Commons as she has been against Hague. As the first ever full-time female Labour leader, she would certainly represent an attractive and striking -- in every sense -- contrast.

Her egalitarian agenda is diametrically opposed to that of the Tory party, and she would at least shore up Labour's lost core vote with radical social policy, and probably a leftward turn in fiscal policy. And with her own straightforward, no-nonsense style, she could well carry the party through a difficult period. She would more likely be a Neil Kinnock figure than a Foot.

There is, however, another side to this story: one that says she does not want the top job. Harman has told her closest intimates that she is being honest when she says the leadership does not interest her. With most of the other names in the running, this could be dismissed as spin. But, as a friend points out, "Harriet is straightforward and upfront. She doesn't do double-dealing. No means no."

To be fair to her, it is impossible to find an ally who believes she will enter a race, either before or after the election. Surprisingly, far from seeking to gloss over it, one aide last night even made a point of Harman's on-air denial of last year's leadership story. In that exchange, she scribbled "not" on a headline saying she was preparing to challenge to be leader. "That was pure Harriet," said the aide. "It was a spontaneous demonstration of how strongly she feels about this."

The same allies claim that Harman only stood for the deputy leadership last year to be part of "Team Brown". "She believed then and she believes now that Gordon is the best man to be Prime Minister," a supporter says. The same source also denies reports in Friday's papers listing a series of "concessions" that she is supposed to have squeezed out of Brown.

Nonetheless, Harman knows that because she was elected to the post, she could remain deputy leader until beyond Brown's career. She could yet serve as kingmaker and then deputy to another. No ally of Balls, with whom she fell out over the expansion of Heathrow last year, and conversely not intimate with Peter Mandelson, say, or David Miliband, who was close to Blair at the time of her sacking 12 years ago, Harman may one day soon channel her support elsewhere. It would be a neat twist if she and her former "bag carrier" Ed Miliband switched roles.

But, on Saturday night, Harman was dismissing all such speculation. She spent last weekend preparing for a speech today addressing age discrimination and the public policy challenges brought about by the ageing society. But at the end of another chaotic week at the top of the Labour Party, it would only be human for her to give a bit of thought to her own future as well.

 

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.