At first I assume the references to ‘the Leader’ are meant as a joke at Harriet Harman’s expense. Westminster is buzzing with rumours that she is positioning herself for a coup against Gordon Brown and someone from her office has been sending me emails referring to ‘the Leader’ this, and ‘the Leader’ that. But Harman doesn’t do jokes. Her title is Leader of the House of Commons, so that is exactly how her staff refer to her.
She has other titles — Secretary of State for Equalities, Minister for Women, Lord Privy Seal, Deputy Leader (and Party Chair) of the Labour Party, and, since 1982, MP for Camberwell and Peckham, so her unofficial title ought to be Seven Jobs Harman. The gist of the emails, by the way, is that I am to be her shadow, have some access, get to know the real Harriet Harman. The day will begin at a primary school in her constituency, then we will travel together to her weekly surgery and after that there will be an interview in her office at the House of Commons before she returns home for the photographs. Whatever can it all mean?
It’s been a funny old week for her so far. She was standing in for Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions a couple of days ago. Acquitted herself well. Looked like she was enjoying it. And it emerged that she is the bookies’ favourite as next Labour leader, after the Tories win the election. But her popularity is not universal. Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is being touted as a ‘stop-Harman’ candidate. And last night when it was announced at the end of Any Questions that Harman would be on the panel next week, the audience hissed. Hissed! And today, Friday, the Telegraph has ran an op ed piece by Jeff Randall which describes her as ‘monument to absurdity.’ Ouch.
So. It is 8.15am and as I approach the school I see two armed policemen. Yup, I think, the Harperson must be here already. ‘No, no,’ she says when I bump into her approaching the school on foot from the other side. Those policemen are for The Home Secretary. Jacqui lives on that street.’ And we all now know what goes on behind those closed doors (and curtains) when Jacqui’s away. But the news of her husband’s viewing habits is yet to break. For now, Harman adds: ‘Of course I don’t have police protection.’ A touchy subject this, as we shall see.
Harman has come to meet some of the children availing themselves of what is called the Breakfast Club, a newish initiative. Working mothers can drop their children off at 8am and the children play games, have some breakfast, listen to music. Harman sits down at a tiny chair and asks a seven year old if he knows what an MP is. He does. ‘Well, I’m your MP. I work with the Prime Minster. I’m going to give you this leaflet to give to your mummy.’
She asks a group of three children what their mothers do — a social worker, a nurse and a teacher. It could almost be scripted. One child says he recognises Harman from the telly. Well, she is recognisable: white teeth, sharp nose, big eyes that are greeny blue (not blue as always reported). And she looks younger than her 58 years. Can it really be a quarter of a century ago that Alan Clark was asked who he thought was the more attractive, Edwina Currie or Harriett Harman, and replied: ‘Oh Harriet, of course. It’s simply a matter of class.’? (Her uncle was Lord Longford, you see. Her father was a Harley Street consultant. And she had a private education at St Paul’s Girl’s School.) She is wearing comfortable shoes today, rather than the stilettos she has been favouring lately, and she is carrying a bulging handbag that hangs open to reveal Kleenex, diaries, keys, ID cards, stuff. She goes off to another room to play one of the children at Connect Four. He beats her. Twice.
When she goes to meet the teachers in the staff room, the headmaster holds a door open for her and she doesn’t make a fuss about it (she once savaged a male civil servant for doing this). She has a slightly pigeon toed walk and when she isn’t using her tortoise shell glasses for reading, she rests them on her hair like a headband. After this she heads down to the school gate to greet parents arriving with their children. Quite a few recognise her and some know her and stop for a chat.
Afterwards she gives me a lift in her car, a Rover she shares with her sister. One of the CDs, I notice, is Jonny Cash. ‘Anything dodgy should be blamed on my sister,’ she says.
I imagine she is more an Arctic Monkeys person. ‘Gordon was quoted out of context about that.’
So ends the banter. When, at 9.30, we arrive at Peckham Town Hall, I actually hear her swear, but not convincingly — more like how a headgirl might swear, with an extra ‘bloody’ that spoils the rhythm. She is talking about how she wishes she could hold her surgeries in the open area rather than in a small adjoing room and adds that ‘it bloody pisses me off.’
Her constituency is 23% African diaspora, the highest percentage in the country. There are bout 20 people waiting. They are mostly immigration and housing cases. The first is a Nigerian woman who is facing a deportation order. Harman knows about her case and is prepared to write to the Home Office on her behalf. ‘God bless you,’ the woman says. The next is a man married to a British citizen who is also facing deportation. This time, Harman takes notes and asks him to sign a form giving her permission to check his police record. ‘We won’t help them if they are known to the police,’ she says to me out of the corner of her mouth. ‘That sends out the wrong message.’
As she is leaving, she says a matey ‘See ya!’ to the receptionist and it reminds me of something the political commentator Quentin Lettes wrote about her in 1998. While listening to her in the Commons he realised that she was trying to change her accent. She was dropping her aitches. It was suddenly Arriet Arman.
Back in the car she realises she has forgotten to have any breakfast and I ask how she keeps her energies levels up, what with her seven jobs. ‘I was very knackered when the kids were little,’ she says, ‘so not having young children at home means that things aren’t so demanding. But being the Leader of the House you are always arriving just as the cleaners are leaving. During the week it’s like being a pit pony, not seeing the outside world.’
She goes to the gym at the weekend, she adds, and gets seven hours sleep, rising at 6.30 and going to bed after Newsnight. ‘Oh you haven’t got a pass,’ she says chewing on her lower lip as we reach the Commons. ‘You might be lucky. I’m going to look confident.’ The policeman asks her to pop her bonnet but the lever is jammed. ‘Oh bugger it,’ she says under her breath. He waves her through.
The table in her office came from David Cameron’s office, apparently. There are few cosy touches — Pugin green wallpaper and a sword propped against a wall, something to do with the Commons swimming competition, it just ended up here. There is a bowl of fruit. I push it towards her, reminding her of her missed breakfast. She has a banana.
I couldn’t help noticing she wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest when we went around her constituency this morning. ‘Oh, that.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘The thing was, Charlotte, who you met, always takes photographs. That morning we were going out with the police and they routinely put a jacket on you. I suppose I could have refused to wear it, but if you are offered one you just put it on and then it went on the website and then the press got hold of it. And the next thing I know the Daily Mail are saying I’m afraid to go out in my own constituency. But I do surgeries every week. I’m outside school every week. I would never think of wearing one.’
When William Hague teased her about it at PMQs last year, she gave as good as she got. She said she wasn’t prepared to ‘take fashion advice from the man in the baseball cap’. Not bad, that. Still, this whole business of PMQs… I ask her why she thinks there is so much speculation at the moment that she wants Gordon Brown’s job. ‘Well I don’t think there should be and I’ve never done anything to fuel it. I promised when I was running for the deputy leadership that I would be a loyal and supportive deputy to Gordon Brown.’
That was in 2007, I point out, haven’t circumstances changed since then? Labour now has its lowest poll ratings since the 1980s. ‘No, I don’t think you can stand for election on one thing and then say circumstances have changed. I believe he is the best person we could be having for prime minster. I get the chance to see him very closely, work with him very closely, and the things he has argued for from the beginning of the recession …’ she lists the things Brown has done for the economy and when she finishes I ask if she can imagine any circumstances in which she might like to stand. ‘No, no, absolutely…’
If the job of prime minster became vacant, say? ‘There’s, there’s no, I’m absolutely campaigning for Labour to do well. You know it’s not for me to throw in the towel and start talking about when Cameron wins. I mean, I know Cameron thinks the next election is in the bag for the Tories, but we are determined to make that not the case. So just as I don’t go around speculating about who would be the next MP for Camberwell and Peckham if I was to fall under a bus… I mean it’s not appropriate; I am the MP there. Similarly it is not appropriate for anyone to say who is going to take over from Gordon Brown. Like with the flak jacket it is wending its way, but there is no basis in it, just as there was no basis in the flak jacket.’ I think I know what she means, then again Harman could never be accused of being articulate, with her ums and ars and false starts. ‘So don’t think there’s no smoke without a fire,’ she continues. ‘I used to think there was no smoke without a fire, but now I know differently.’
But Gordon Brown won’t have the job forever. There will come a point where he stands down. ‘But he’s only been doing it for a year and a half. So don’t take any notice of the bookies because they had me coming last in the deputy leadership election, describing me as an outsider and an also ran, so don’t take any notice of the bookies.’
That must have felt good, I say, winning, after all those years in the wilderness. ‘Oh!’ she punches the air. ‘What was so great was some terrible things had been written by… people were saying it was laughable that the Labour party would want to support me to be deputy leader, so to prove mean critics wrong I did have a moment to savour there.’
She joined the Cabinet as Social Security Secretary when Blair formed his first government in 1997, but was sacked just over a year later (her competence was questioned). ‘No one likes to be sacked,’ she says now, ‘but actually it was a good experience to be on the backbenches while we were in government. It gave me time to be on various committees, like the childcare commission.’
Yeah, right. How did her ego recover? ‘I was worried that I would be setting a bad example to my kids. Cocking things up and being a failure and then a very good friend said: “This is your chance to set the very best example to your kids.” If you have a knock back you don’t feel sorry for yourself and blame everyone else, you say, “Right, what do I do now?” You actually press on and that was the best advice. I decided there and then to…‘ she taps the table. ‘Not to become bitter and not become miserable. No one is interested in a moaner.’
Why does she think she is such a divisive figure in the Labour party? She blinks. ‘I, I, don’t think, I wouldn’t say, I think that, um, I don’t know, can I just have a think about what I think the premise to that question is? I don’t, er, I think that I do have some, you know…’ She taps the table again. ‘Trenchant views which… ruffle feathers. And, so for example, being, you know, a feminist in a parliament that was 97% men did not make you mainstream. I was very much on the margins.’
The most divisive thing was her choice of school for her three children. Though it was Labour policy to ban selection in schools she decided to send her eldest son across London to a grant-maintained Roman Catholic school and, a year later, her younger son to a non-Catholic selective grammar school in Kent. Blair stood by her, not least because he had done the same thing. What nobody in the Labour leadership expected was the intensity of the anger from the party’s own MPs. It was hypocritical of her, wasn’t it?
‘I’ve never discussed it and don’t discuss it because it involves the children. It’s no secret. People can make whatever judgement they want. And they do. But. I slightly balk at the idea of being a divisive figure because I want the party to be united. I can’t be that divisive because the majority of the party voted for me.’ She smiles tightly. ‘So I will swerve round that question.’
How would she describe herself? ‘Um, “cheerful” I think and I think I’m quite focused and hard working and I’m quite surprising to myself. I think I would never have thought I would be deputy leader of the party and in the Cabinet. I’m still taken aback when I get up in the morning and I’m a member of the cabinet!’ [One doesn’t imagine she is alone in this.] ‘That’s an amazing… I mean I have to double take and, er, that is an amazing thing. You know, er, some people feel they were born to be in the Cabinet whereas other people feel like imposters and blink.’
So she is a blinking imposter? ‘Yes. Will I be found out?’
What about some of the words other people use to describe her? Prickly, say? ‘Well, perhaps tenacious. Tenacity does annoy people. Irritatingly I’m not prepared to step back and say, “that’s all right.” I do have arguments.’ She nods thoughtfully. ‘I see what you mean now by “divisive”.’
Hectoring? ‘I think I am perhaps not sufficiently row averse. But it is usually about trying to make progress. It is not a row for the sake of it. But sometimes you do have to fight your corner. And you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. But as far as, what did you say? Hectoring? I certainly don’t mean to be.’
Abrasive? ‘These are just words for “horrible” aren’t they? I think my agenda is an embattled agenda that wants change. It’s not congenial to keep saying we haven’t done enough on equal pay or maternity leave.’
Does she have a thick skin? ‘I do, I think. Well you have to have a thick skin, because there’s no justice in it. It’s unfair but nothing that can be done. Sometimes people say I wouldn’t do what you do for all the tea in China and they look at me and I can see they are being sympathetic but actually to be able to represent a constituency and to be a part of a government that is struggling with a massive economic challenge trying to do everything you can to protect people in a difficult situation…’
So when she sees unfavourable headlines about herself, the shutters come down? ‘Obviously when you do something stupid like, I shouldn’t have taken that photograph of me in the flak jacket, but at the end of the day no one is perfect.’
Was it stupid to get involved in the Sir Fred Goodwin debate (when she went off message to say the Government would remove his £700,000-a-year pension, senior Labour figures accused her of chasing populist headlines in a bid to become leader). ‘No! I am totally against people vandalising his house. I think that’s terrible. But that bank is only still standing because of public money and he led it to the bring of disaster and I don’t think £700,000 can be called a pension when you are only 50. That’s severance pay. Reward for failure.’
Has she ever felt patronised for being perceived as attractive and glamorous: the big eyes, the stillettoes? ‘Oh, I feel patronised when people continuously say I am stupid because, basically, when I was a young women, there was an ethos that you shouldn’t be too clever because you’ll never get a husband, because no one wants a wife cleverer than him. So you start with don’t be too clever and you go straight over into being too thick. So I’ve either had “you’re too clever” or “you’re too thick” all my life. It’s very annoying to be described as stupid but I think there are a lot of people who get described as stupid and aren’t, and they probably recognise what is happening to me and think “that happens to me, too”. So erm, so I just, you know, so I feel that’s patronising.’
(For the record, she has a degree in politics from York University, trained as a solicitor and became a QC, so she can’t be that stupid.) Meanwhile, her fierce campaigning for women over the years has brought her unwanted attention from pro-father groups. It culminated in June last year, when two protesters from Fathers4Justice climbed on the roof of her home in Herne Hill, south London. She pulls a mock grimace when I remind her that she once joked that if she became PM ‘there aren’t enough airports in the country for all the men who would want to flee’. ‘Never a good idea to make jokes in parliament,’ she says now.
That reputation among men is presumably to do with her 1990 comment that: ‘It cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life’. It seems a bonkers thing to have said and, speaking as a father, a rather insulting thing, too. ‘I was probably talking in the context of domestic violence,’ she says. ‘I might well have been saying that there are some family lives where the father’s role might be quite a destructive one. Obviously, I think children do best if they have a close relationship with both parents. Of course they do. It’s been used as gender warfare which it wasn’t meant to be.’
Harman is married to Jack Dromey, Deputy General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. What did he make of that comment? ‘Well, he supports the arguments for equality. There are a lot of women member in his trade union.’
He describes himself jokingly as Jack Harman, nee Dromey. They met on a picket line in 1977 and married in 1982 when she was pregnant and about to become and MP. It is sometimes said that they are the ideal New Labour couple: the one working class (his father was a road digger), the other middle. Harman once said that neither of them are frivolous people. They had always been ‘in the struggle’.
Is hers a right-on household? I mean, her children take her surname not his and I notice she isn’t wearing a wedding ring. ‘Well I think that, urm, weddings are much more fashionable now than they were in my day. Than, er…’ She blinks. Frowns. ‘I don’t know why I don’t wear a wedding ring. Are we a right-on household? Erm, politically correct? I don’t know. How would I know? What would be the measure of this? We’re partners.’
What’s the family conversation like over the breakfast cereals? ‘Well it is pretty much politics. Masses of newspapers. The Today programme is on. I guess, it’s, yeah, political. Very political.’
Who does most of the tidying round the house? ‘Jack does, but that’s not to do with, that’s just because some people like things to be tidier than others. But, you know, I do the gardening. I do the cooking. He does the shopping.’
Her relationship with her father, what was that like? ‘Good.’ Was he a Tory? ‘He was.’ So was her becoming a socialist an act of rebellion against him? ‘Not really because he wasn’t active politically. And my mum was progressive. A liberal. She didn’t work when we were little but qualified as a solicitor when we were in our teens.’
Who is the more posh between her and David Cameron? ‘Weeell… I’m now regarded as being so unbelievable posh that I’m about to ascend to the throne. I’m surprised I don’t have an amazing estate somewhere with a castle on it. I mean, it’s ridiculous. My background is middle class rather than landed gentry.’
But titled. ‘Well you know, but that’s my father’s sister, she married into a titled family, but so what? Alan Duncan, who is my opposite number, is very funny about this. He taunts me.’
Although we have been alone in the room, her press secretary has put a tape recorder on and this has just stopped. ‘Should I get Des to fiddle faddle the wotsit?’ she says. She has a go but gives up and hands it to me. As an interviewer, tape recorders are one of my few areas of expertise, so I am soon able to fiddle faddle her wotsit.
She was seven months pregnant when she first entered parliament; I ask if she felt guilty about being a working mother. ‘There’s a lot of guilt attached to being a mother full stop. I think the midwives thought it was good exercise for me running up and down stairs in block of flats campaigning and handing out leaflets.’
And here she still is, now one of the longest serving women MPs in the House. And she still seems to get a kick out of it. ‘There must be something wrong with me because I enjoy doing PMQs,’ she says, widening her eyes. ‘I realised either you are going to feel miserable and nervous or you can enjoy it so I thought, yeah, why not? Everyone thinks I’m going to be a big flop so there are no expectations to defeat. And it’s just a bunch of MPs. The House of Commons is not Helmand Province. It is demanding but ridiculous. Banked up on both sides. Gladiatorial.’
With William Hague as Maximus? ‘He’s very good at it, very clever at it. He’s very funny but I have to keep reminded myself not to laugh at his jokes because I’m supposed to be the victim of them.’
After Labour’s defeat in the Glasgow East by-election last year, Harman was reportedly overheard saying: ‘This is my moment.’ She denies it but it stuck and Mr Hague teased her about it the other day at PMQs: ‘Why don’t you step in? When Chamberlain lost his party’s confidence, Churchill stepped forward. When Eden crossed the Atlantic exhausted, Supermac came forward. This could be your moment.’
I have to say, if her intension in agreeing to this interview was to show her more human side, get away from her reputation for being a humourless automaton, it has sort of worked. She has pulled faces, rolled her eyes, laughed engagingly. A friskier more playful side has emerged — less the earnest, head down, brittle Harperson of folklore. And while she is still not exactly a ‘character’ in the way that Ann Widdecombe is, or Mo Mowlam was, no one can deny she has staying power. She has been a Bennite, a Kinnockite, a Smithite, a Blairite and now she is protesting too much that she is a Brownite. When I ask her where she stands, she adopts a northern accent and says with a laugh: ‘I’m LA-BOUR!’
Perhaps she does do jokes, after all. As we are walking back down to her car I ask what Gordon Brown is like behind closed doors. She gives a long-winded answer that is supportive, but the phrase that sticks in my mind is: ‘Well, I wouldn’t say he’s happy go lucky.’ Again, quite funny.
In the car once more, staring at her Jonny Cash CD, I ask her if she had a nickname at school. ‘No. Did you?’ What do her friends call her, then? ‘Some of them call me Hattie.’ She frowns for a moment as she considers this then concludes: ‘I suppose because Hattie Jacques was a Harriet.’