25 April 2022

Angela Rayner and the state of the Oxford Union

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Politics is never a walk in the park, least of all for Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, who came under attack over the weekend simply for having legs.

I don’t wish to dignify the pervy claims by anonymous Tory sources, reported in the Mail on Sunday, that Rayner ‘likes to put Mr Johnson ‘off his stride’ in the chamber by crossing and uncrossing her legs’ with too much analysis. Female MPs should be able to sit on the green benches without being slavered over by seedy little men opposite them. The idea that someone as successful as Rayner would resort to leg positioning as a political tactic is as patronising as it is absurd. It says far more about the proclivities of those making the allegation than it does about the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this episode is that we’ve been here before. In 2017, the Mail on Sunday’s sister paper was criticised for a front page asking ‘who won Legs-it!’ alongside a picture of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. In the accompanying piece, columnist Sarah Vine compared the then Prime Minister’s ‘famously long extremities’ to Scotland’s First Minister’s ‘shapely shanks’, proving that a peculiar fascination with leaders’ limbs is not limited to Conservative MPs – nor even to men. 

It’s no coincidence that the comments about Rayner coincided with reports that no fewer than 56 MPs are facing sexual harassment investigations in the House of Commons. Parliament is still dripping in sexism, and everyone involved – men, women, MPs, officials and journalists – should examine their complicity in that culture. The widespread condemnation of the Mail on Sunday’s article, from all sides of the House, is a good start.

But while misogyny in politics is, sadly, nothing new, there was another revealing quote from an MP who claimed Rayner: ‘knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training’. There’s a Uriah Heep-ish sycophancy in the implication that the Prime Minister’s educational background gives him an advantage in Parliamentary debates, which doesn’t really withstand scrutiny of his actual performances. Johnson can be a brilliant communicator, but even his most fervent admirers would admit that the despatch box isn’t always his best platform. For example, saying Keir Starmer ‘must be out of his tiny mind’ at last week’s PMQs was hardly his finest rhetorical moment. Rayner, on the other hand, is a confident Commons speaker, and always an entertaining stand-in for her adenoidal leader. 

Where, then, does this crass elitism about the Oxford Union come from? Yes, a number of its presidents – including Michael Gove, Damian Green, William Hague and, of course, Johnson – have gone on to the Cabinet. So it’s a well trodden path to power for Conservatives, but that’s also a reflection of how much more time the Tories have spent in government than other political parties. And there are just as many people in high office who’ve never had anything to do with it. 

I went to Oxford. My recollection is that members of the debating society tended to be both extremely over-confident and intensely fascinated with the internal hierarchy of the Oxford Union. The qualities most prized in its debaters were a quick wit and a facility with the high handed put-down. These are skills that will only get you so far in politics. You can see the kind of prolix style that went down well at the Union in this clip of a 20-year-old Michael Gove brandishing a pair of Oxford Union boxer shorts. One suspects this is more a source of embarrassment than pride to Mr Gove today.

The Union undoubtedly gave its members the opportunity to share platforms with extraordinary people and hone their oratory. That’s great preparation for a tiny part of the job of being an MP. Constraints on Parliamentary time mean that speeches in major debates are often limited to just a few minutes. Prime Minister’s Questions still commands an audience, but backbenchers are often pressured into asking patsy questions by the whips. The only real opportunity MPs get to speak at any kind of length is when they’re called on to ‘talk out’ Private Member’s Bills.

A great deal of an MP’s time is spent responding directly to constituents, who send hundreds of emails a day ranging from hobby horse campaigns to heart-breaking personal problems. That’s not something the august, white-tied environs of the Oxford Union can really prepare you for.

‘Oxford Union debating training’ is little more than a short-hand for privilege, and it’s deeply embarrassing that a Party as diverse as the Tories would use it about themselves. There’s far more to political communication than a slick debating style. Angela Rayner is just one example of a politician with a unique voice who uses her life experiences to connect with voters – though some argue her reputation as the ‘working class whisperer’ is overblown. Across the House, there are MPs whose backgrounds disprove the myth that the Oxford Union is either the best or the only route into Parliament.

Ultimately, both sexism and snobbery in our politics are rooted in tired stereotypes. It’s time we all uncrossed our legs and gave them a good kicking.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.