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  1. Election 2024
11 September 2000

Too rude, too rough, too sexy

Mo's exit: her fault or theirs? - Blair's Boys like elegant, well-groomed superwomen. Mowlam was in

By Linda McDougall

Mo has been thrown out of the Big Brother House. The Boys threw her out. And yet.

I’ve never met a woman with a bad word to say about Mo Mowlam. Left-wing or right, old or young, rich, struggling or desperately deprived, women like Mo, admire her and trust her to do her job.

Old Labour men, both out in the constituencies and at Westminster, love her to bits. She talks their language. She rubs them up the right way, whispers an encouraging word and wins their devotion. The lads enjoy her, too, because she talks their language. She can be rude and rough, sexy and tough.

It is only in the salons of new Labour, where “The Boys” run the show, that she is seen as a disaster. They whispered about her, and now they will be smirking with delight because they have got rid of her.

Four months ago, I was working on a Channel 4 documentary charting Mo’s rise and fall. It was hard to find people prepared to talk on camera about the whispering campaign against her. Everyone knew it was happening, but few dared to acknowledge it in public. Still, there was no shortage of enemies prepared to tell me (off the record) tales of Mo’s appalling behaviour. One Friday night in a Millbank bar, the right-hand man of another Cabinet minister poured vitriol with my vodka. He claimed that Mo had propositioned his minister and he had turned her down, so she had spread a rumour that he was gay. And then there was the time, said the leering adviser, that Mo had attended a trade union conference and had a good time with the whole executive. One by one.

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There were equally false and damaging rumours whizzing around Westminster. She was lazy. She couldn’t follow a brief. She treated her civil servants abominably. She was bored. She was sick, and not likely to get any better. She was dumb.

Why all these rumours? This woman was the most popular politician in Britain. One of the reasons Labour had won the election with a landslide was that so many women had changed their vote. And women voters loved Mo. Why try to destroy your most precious asset?

However much they paid public lip service to Mo, the exclusive Boys’ club that wields the power in the Labour Party found her impossible to deal with. Loud, noisy, provocative and embarrassing, she was completely unlike the gracious women in their circle. The Boys at the Top share their lives with superwomen: elegant, well-groomed politicians and professionals who get on with their important careers or departmental responsibilities, bring up the children and let the Boys run the country.

Mo has never been a member of Tony’s inner circle of Boys who really rule. When she was at the height of her success in Northern Ireland, they treated her rather like an eccentric and much-loved maiden aunt at a family gathering. “Our one and only Mo,” soothed the Prime Minister after she got a standing ovation in the middle of his speech to the party conference two years ago.

Mo had been a success in Northern Ireland from the beginning. When the Herald of Free Enterprise sank off Zeebrugge in 1987, many people’s lives were saved because a tall young man allowed passengers to use him as a human bridge to escape. Mo was like a human bridge in Northern Ireland. At a time when it was really necessary, her much-vaunted touchy-feely style made people see for the first time that it was possible for both communities to find ways of talking to each other. For her first 18 months in the job, there was hardly a cross word published about Mo. Many Unionists didn’t like her style, quite unlike the homeliness of their own little women; many were shocked by it; but as long as she was being strongly supported by the government in England, they put up with it. They only voiced their misgivings when Blair himself began to sideline her.

When we went to Northern Ireland to interview people for our documentary, I was amazed at the depth of feeling for Mo. The people missed her and felt that she belonged to them. The self-proclaimed ex- terrorist David Ervine said he worshipped her. Seamus Mallon gulped with emotion as he told me they would not see the likes of her again in Northern Ireland, and even the Fermanagh MP, Ken Maginnis, admitted a soft spot for her.

Mo did not want to leave Northern Ireland. She knew that there was a job to be finished, and she wanted to do it. But Blair was prepared to offer her scalp to David Trimble, and he wanted Peter Mandelson to get the glory for the peace agreement as a rehabilitation perk. Friends of Mo say that she has never enjoyed Westminster: she is not a Commons woman, she likes to be as far away from the centre of things as possible. Blair didn’t offer her any job that she wanted to do, so, for about a year, she has been sidelined, unhappy and bored.

Blair’s mistake was not to give his most popular politician a job that would use her skills with the people outside Westminster; Mo’s mistake was not to make something of the post Blair gave her in the Cabinet Office. Instead, Mo got sore. She knew she was the most popular member of parliament, and she wanted kudos in the Cabinet to match.

A male politician would have gathered his gang around him, created a job and plotted his revenge: Mo thrashed and sulked.

Women politicians seem to work much more as individuals than their male colleagues. For all that she is loved, Mo is pretty much a loner in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Soon she was whispering, too, spreading it about the library and the tearoom that “They” were still out to get her. Just before the end of the latest parliamentary session, I walked down Victoria Street with one of her mates after a ten o’clock vote and he told me that she had spent the evening complaining to pretty well anyone who’d listen. “I wish she’d stop it,” he said. “She’s her own worst enemy.”

Over the summer, she decided that there was no way back, and appears to have launched herself on a sympathetic world without any firm plans for her future.

In the days since the news broke, Mo has appeared on just about every news programme, repeating over and over again like a mantra: “I’m 50. I want to do something else before I retire, before I go. No, I don’t know what. I haven’t any plans . . . No, I don’t blame Peter Mandelson or Jonathan Powell for the whispering campaigns.”

All a bit pathetic; a meaningless and tragic end to the political career of Labour’s most successful female politician – but a great relief to the Boys who are the Masters of the Blairite Universe.

Yet Labour needs women’s votes more than ever at the next election. Mo, a feminist through and through, was ideally suited to be the leader of the campaign to keep women on board.

The Boys at the Top felt threatened by Mo’s popularity and her essentially feminine way of politicking, her emotional intuition and sheer unpredictability. Most of all, they were nervous of a real woman who fits uneasily into Blair Boystown. The result is a tragedy for both sides. Mo needs a role; Labour needs women. Now both sit staring at each other over a gulf of incomprehension.

Cristina Odone, p24

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