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The formidable female politicians of the year

30 December 2012

Audits of the last year are a blessing to journalists: a postmortem of the gainers and losers of 2012 are a useful means of covering for the fact that there’s next to nothing happening on the political front, nobody’s at work and the only actual news is hinged on that annual festival of recrimination, the New Year’s Honours List.

But the lists are good for sparking off debate, at least among the politically interested, and one of them, the Telegraph’s summary of the top five political women of the last year had at least the merit of getting me worked up. To cut to the chase, the women who matter by this reckoning are Theresa May, Harriet Harman – fair enough – Hillary Clinton, fine, Nadine Dorries (yes, yes) and Louise Mensch. That’s right, she who lost a parliamentary seat for the Conservatives, she who cut her parliamentary career short in order to decamp to the US, she who single-handedly discredited the entire notion of the A-list.

Actually, this last, giving the A-list a bad name was arguably something of a service to politics. The notion of an elite squad of women and high-fliers who would be parachuted into safe seats in order to make the Tory Party look more like the leadership would like it to look was the triumph of Notting Hill Toryism, an affront to the notion of grassroots politics and to the entire concept of localism.

The idea that Louise Bagshawe/Mensch was, as an easy on the eye novelist, better able to represent her constituency than a local stalwart, was in this, as in other cases, a concession to the needs of television, not of democracy. Mind you, it’s obviously not just the Tories who do this sort of thing; Labour’s selection for Denis MacShane’s successor was an outrageous top-down manipulation of the process in favour of women candidates. So possibly on negative grounds, Mensch may have usefully proved a point.


But there is outstanding female talent out there. Of all the new intake, Stella Creasy, Labour and Co-op MP for Walthamstow, is an interesting instance of a very new MP who has made her mark by focusing, Frank Field-style, on the unglamorous grassroots issues. In her case, it’s the issue of loan sharks, the contemporary usury that cripples some 3 million of the very poorest borrowers. Her 10-minute bill, attempting to regulate the legal home loan market, was a fine instance of how single-mindedness can pay off, and how the needs of debtors at the bottom of the pile can, with persistence, be brought to the attention of a government which is focused on the needs of middle class borrowers. Fair play to her.

Another woman who has undeniably left her mark is Andrea Leadsom, who, as a member of the Commons Treasury Committee, helped articulate the grievances of the entire electorate. I can’t say I quite agree that the Bank of England, let alone the bankers, were as thoroughly taken to task by the committee as they deserved, but she did quite as good a job as the rest. And she usefully intervened in a toxic row between the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor by calling on George Osborne to apologise to Ed Balls for suggesting he was involved in the Libor scandal It’s all forgotten now, but it was an instance of fairmindedness that should get credit.

And what about Margaret Hodge? Once, as leader of Islington Council, she had a problematic record when it came to the management of children’s homes in the borough, but as chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, she’s had a ball. It is in fact, hard to get the chairmanship of the PAC wrong: Edward Leigh, similarly, had a fine time of it, bringing to public attention the sheer scale of misuse of public money, but even given that she has perhaps the easiest job in politics in calling attention to egregious, large scale abuses, she has done it with tremendous style. She’s articulate, personable and humorous and her hounding of Google and Starbucks for tax avoidance over and above the needs of shareholders was a pleasurable spectacle.

As for the international scene, the politician, let alone, the female politician, who has left her mark most strikingly on Europe is the least glamorous woman in politics, the German Chancellor.

It’s hard to imagine a younger Angela Merkel being A-listed by the Tories, being more or less the polar opposite of poor Louise Mensh, but in her stolid fashion, she has held the eurozone together, committed Germany to underwriting the liabilities of European account holders, and arguably rescued the entire European project. It’s hard to see any of her peers being up to the job, but by dint of that Lutheran pastor’s daughter integrity she has a moral credibility for which the only near parallel in British politics was Gordon Brown – before his premiership, obviously. There will be quite a number of Brits who will not necessarily thank her for ensuring that Greece did not in fact go under and the eurozone did hold but it was an achievement which will shape the European Union of the next decade.

And perhaps her greatest achievement is that no-one would patronise her by praising her as an awfully good woman politician. She’s a formidable politician, finis.

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  • Harry Headon

    It just has to be Peter Mandelson.
    The bitch.

  • eeliestruth

    She might have held the euro zone together, but for how long can Germany carry on paying out. The euro zone is in a terrible mess, the people in Greece Italy etc. are suffering. How long is it when they say enough is enough.

  • Gary Wintle

    With the exception of Mensch (who gives us an insight into what the glorious Emma Watson will look like in 20 years), female politicians are conclusive proof that politics is showbiz for ugly people.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Mrs May is nice looking in my opinion. And Kate Hooey. Don’t be so ungallant.

  • Coffeehousewall

    In what way could Mensch be considered formidable? She showed herself to be pathetic and self-centred. Entirely to be expected of career politicians, especially those who have an inflated sense of their worth, but not something to be commended.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Mensch is simply the female version of Chris Bryant i.e. useless tosser in it for the publicity. Still, at least she doesn’t pose in her underwear.

  • Colonel Mustard

    More identity group politics and tokenism. Politicians should be assessed on their merits rather than their gender, although I note the latter only seems to apply to the female of the species.

    Some of the Labour women MPs do rate special recognition though, as being even more ghastly than their male counterparts. God help us when they become ministers.

  • Sarah

    Why did you write this article, Melanie?

    Did the Spectator Editors put you up to it? Why did you agree?

    I hope we can expect a follow up on male political performances this year, gay political performance this year, and other round ups of political novelty acts.

    • Daniel Maris

      She probably had a glass or two of wine more than she meant to at the Spectator Christmas party. Next thing you know, she was surrounded by a group of braying males urging her to “give the men a show” with a bit of “festive feminism” as it’s known in polite journalistic circles (“Come on love, it’s only once a year – we’ll completely forget about women for the rest of the twelve months…”. Whoozily she agreed…I’m as shocked as you Sarah.

    • Gabriella

      Don’t women’s rights’ organisations and charities come up with lists like this all the time? Greatest women in history; greatest women scientists; greatest women writers; greatest women sportsmen etc? Woman’s Hour on the BBC only celebrates women, and the BBC has loads of programmes about women in history. And what about the Orange prize and Women in business prizes? Time to jettison the lot maybe, and all features on successful women in any fields, according to you, maybe?.

  • AY

    1) the unnamed victim of Delhi gang rape, who unfortunately died
    2) Malala, that pakistani girl shot by taliban
    3) English female children, victims of Rochdale muslim pedophile gang
    4) thousands of other girls and women pimped raped and killed in Europe by barbaric third world invaders.

    next time when you see a white baby girl, just remember her future might be horrible – courtesy of our multicultural priests, shrimps, orks and traitors.

    the time is to discuss and decide what is to be urgentlly done to save and protect European females, not for idiotic “formidable” contests.

    • Sarah

      “the time is to discuss and decide what is to be done to save and protect females”

      Do women get a say or should they wait politely to be saved and protected from men once the men have decided on the best method?

      • AY

        “best methods” are known to both:

        1) adequate education of children, teaching facts, logic, and humanistic moral
        2) in the culture, promoting models of inter-gender relations based on the spirit of Enlightenment – complementarity, respect, loyalty and romantics
        3) no tolerance to the cave age misogyny of criminals and imported savages

        we still have some 1) and 2) (despite under threat of erosoin), but definitely not enough 3) because of degeneration and politization of the police.

  • HellforLeather

    Stella Creasy, who can’t be bothered to pay interns? .

    Margaret Hodge? Please catch up on Guido Fawkes about this tax-revisionist.

    Who the hell let the author of this column loose?

  • Old Blue Eyes

    “But there is outstanding female talent out there”. Well the lot of those mentioned wouldn’t amount to the contents of Maggie’s handbag.

  • Thick as two Plancks

    Frau Merkel „Politik ohne Lüge”. Politics without lies. Worth thinking

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    My word, this is fluff.

  • Solomon OluSeyi Adeleye

    For Me The Two Most Formidable Women Will Have To Be, RT HON MRS THATCHER & Most Definite, RT HON MRS MAY: MRS MAY WILL BE A FORMIDABLE PM FOR GREAT BRITAIN {Respect Goes To Her}

  • William Blakes Ghost

    Actually Merkel and Clinton have been quite effective but the current crop of British female politicians are pretty awful (whether its Hodge, Leadsom, Sandys, Cooper, May, Perry or whoever). If only Maggie was still in her prime!

  • William Blakes Ghost

    The top British female poltician of the year is (drum role) JACK DROMEY! Well his seat should have been given to a woman.

  • ButcombeMan

    “she has a moral credibility for which the only near parallel in British
    politics was Gordon Brown – before his premiership, obviously.”

    Congratulations, you made me laugh out loud, linking “Brown” & “moral credibility”. He bankrupted the country, put an end to our pensions, sold off our gold, cheap, for as yet unexplained reasons and was the very worst and most economically illiterate Chancellor of the UK, since WW2.

    Why have a go at Angela Merkle for her lack of “glamour”? Such a remark from a man would be ungallant and out of order.

    • Gary Wintle

      Women over 30 are has-beens, but Merkel never was to begin with. She became a politician because she certainly has nothing to offer as a woman. This asexual, strange creature, devoid of emotion or charisma, is a bean counter (her only talent, for she has not a single spark of passion or creativity).

      • Fergus Pickering

        This is a curiously stupid post even by the standards pertaining here. Is it an effort to make women cross? You’ll have to do a lot better than this, friend.

  • anyfool

    I thought you got out of your mind on New Years Eve, early start for MM, if this is the cream of female representatives god help us if they force 50% on governments..

    Even the seemingly better ones stand out only because the others are so poor, the two who really matter Merkel and Clinton, “Merkel has bankrupted her country, turkeys not chickens coming home to roost in Germany” as for Clinton what can anyone put a finger on what she has done of merit, she has bleated all over the world as the reputation of the US has plummeted along with the fear factor, even Tunisia that global power has given them the finger over the murderers of Benghazi.

    The highest praise for the none of them matter group, Hodge. a tax avoiding empty vessel screeching about her fellow travellers in the no tax race.

    You really would not make this up if you were sober.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I assume you have the names of male politicians at your fingertips who have all the qualities these women lack – men like Silvio Berlusconi, Francois Holland, Benjamin Whateveritis, those inspiring Arab leaders, Bigears USA. I think the best male politician about is our Dave, a splendid chap, followed closely by the inspiring multicultural Boris. Are these your men too?

      • anyfool

        You assume wrong, i was commenting on the merits of these as a group of women and not as a direct correlation with men, but as you say the men whom you mention are not a group who inspire anything but depression although Netanyahu has a very difficult hand with a pro islamist President to contend with.
        You are probably right about Cameron and Boris as they have an even more difficult hand to deal with than Neto, they have a media who put sales before truth and a BBC who combined with a large percentage of the population who have never given a thought to how the real world works as they have never had to operate in it.

        • Fergus Pickering

          OK, Friend. I agree. You’ll do.

  • mcclane

    Margaret Hodge? The Stemcor woman? You are seriously joking. “A problematic record when it came to the management of children’s homes in the borough”? Ask Demetrious Panton what he thinks of her record. She looks to be complicit in the cover-up of a paedophile ring.

    She must be dreading the dawn door knock. Will it be the HMRC or Operation Yewtree?

  • 2trueblue

    May is top of our list of current MPs and has shown real talent in righting any slipups. Merkel has done very well for the Germans selling their goods to the world on a cheap euro and building up a great manufacturing base. Her power in the EU has been because of that and the fact that Germany is pushing the agenda there.

    Clinton has a motor mouth which has speckled her reputation with ‘mis-spokes’.
    The rest of the Telegraph list are not in contention at all. They are neither one thing or the other, with nothing outstanding to offer and shine at.

    • William Blakes Ghost

      May is top of our list of current MPs and has shown real talent in righting any slipups

      You are kidding. She is proving as lousy a Home Secretary as Jacqui Smith and her snoopers charter is an affront to freedom and privacy. Not forgetting that she has single handedly manage to destory the relationship between the police and the government and not to mention her various failings over immigration or the Abu Qatada farce. She is an embarrassment as Home Secretary

      • 2trueblue

        No, Jacqui Smith was much worse.

      • Wessex Man

        It wasn’t her that re-wrote the hundreds of incident books at Hillsborough, it wasn’t her that sent an e-mail about the Chief Whip plebbing the rozzers, stating he was a member of the public who had witnessed it happen, who wasn’t there and turned out to be an extremely beer bellied copper. As far as I can see she’s the only half decent member of the Cabinet.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I would have thought the police, bullying, ignorant and corrupt, have destroyed their relationships with just about everybody – except the criminals who pay them off of course.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Nonsense. She is the best Home Secretary since Michael Howard. Your head is firmly up your arse.

  • ToryOAP

    In my lifetime I can think of half-dozen or so political giants of which 3 were women: Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir. Of the current crop, only Merkel and (surpringly for me) Hilary Clinton could be considered better than average. To consider the appalling Hodge, Harman, Mensch, Dorries or the frightful Reeves, Eagle clones, Abbott or Flint worthy of consideration is laughable. May has guts and is head and shoulders above any other woman in this lacklustre bunch of MPs (male or female) and is closely followed by the always excellent Kate Hoey and the sometimes sound Gisela Stuart – both of whom should cross the floor.

    My dear old mum could have done a better job than most of this underwhelming lot.

    • Curnonsky

      Name an actual accomplishment of Hillary Clinton.

      • Rue de la Loi

        Being utterly shameless about haing “mis-spoken” about being under fire in Tuzla in a desperate effort to give some credence to claims to foreign policy experience. One of many accomplishments laid out in Chritopher Hitchens’ book, “No one left to lie to”

    • Ron Todd

      If we judge only on current performance then I do think Hodge is doing a good job. Any sort of official or semi official list would be required to have at least one ethnic minority included. Dorries and Mensch are celebrity style politicians one better known for what she did outside parliament (which is not always bad ) the other for looking nice.

    • Wessex Man

      Why on earth would the excellent Kate Hoey want to cross the floor to New Labour mark 2?

  • Kevin

    “thank her for ensuring that Greece did not in fact go under”

    This article read well until here. The fact that Greece is no longer headline news probably has more to do with a liberal media push to disarm the American public rather than the state of the Greek economy, which I understand is still miserable.

  • Noa

    “…her hounding of Google and Starbucks for tax avoidance over and above the needs of shareholders was a pleasurable spectacle.”
    Then you are I fear too easily entertained and too uncritical on the subject of public finance review.
    And so by inference women can be as hypocritical as, well, men. I can’t remember the hatchet faced Hodge making much fuss about tax avoidance – all perfectly legal by the way- in managing her own ‘tiny’ interests or whilst in government.
    Far more enjoyable-and critical- was Priti Patel’s exposure of her bah humbuggery.

    • mcclane

      Indeed. And if we’re going to start on tax avoidance, which is legal & which I commit on a regular basis by buying cigarettes and alcohol abroad for consumption in the UK, then we need to start with MPs and members of the House of Lords to see how much tax they’ve avoided by charging it as an expense to the tax-payer.

      • Gary Wintle

        MPs should live in prefab hovels, and be paid the minimum wage. If they wish to serve the people, then they should not care for financial reward.

  • barbie

    I don’t think Merkel is in the position of world women leaders, yes, she leads, but is not really commanding, not like M Thatcher was. When she entered a room or spoke one listened. Merkel is one who looks to her own turf first, so all this assumption about ‘Greece’ is off the mark; they look after Germany first the rest after. She will have to do alot to win the next election and it looks like she may lose, she’s not so popular as one thinks. 50% of Germans want to leave the EU and revert back to the former currancy, the European debts are overwhelming them and the thought of German taxpayers footing the bills. That’s why Merkel is thinking like Cameron is, without our input into the EU of 52 million pounds per day, who would make up the short fall, not France for sure. No, I don’t think she is ranked as a good leader really, detirmined and straight forward yes. I can’t think of any other womem who I’d class as a world leader at this moment in time.

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