Cherchez la femme as they say when a scandal unfolds or a crime is committed. In the case of Boris Johnson and his semi-permanent leadership bid scuppered by regular revelations of extra-marital indiscretions, we did not have to look far this time.
Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative communications chief, was ideal casting for the part of femme fatale. Young, glamorous and with a social media output ripe for scraping, she was duly dragged into the spotlight. Ms Symonds is considerably more photogenic than the former foreign secretary and she has provided fresh blood to keep the story on the front pages.
Because it has been bloody. Ms Symonds has had her work for the Tory party and her other forays into public debate laid out on the slab for dissection — notably her role in a successful campaign to have the multiple rapist John Worboys (she was one of the women he drugged in his black cab) kept behind bars. You can imagine the chorus of disapproval: “Well . . . they say here she’s an ‘ambitious party girl’ and you know the kind of trouble they cause.”
Before leaving her job at Conservative HQ, Ms Symonds was instrumental in making the case in Tory circles against proliferating plastic waste. But the reporting of this success, which for once put her party on the right side of public opinion, is laced with ridicule. The pictures, meanwhile, are dynamite: “OK, so the oceans are filling up with crap and nobody likes to see a turtle choking, but look! She’s in a bikini!”
Some may feel Ms Symonds is fair game. She took a high-profile job in public life. Instead of keeping to the shadows as some advisers do, she embraced the possibilities of helping her causes through her public persona. But this also made her ideal for the job, an asset to a party with an ageing demographic and a problem connecting with young voters. Now she has gone to ground.
There but for the grace of God . . . In the 1990s, while working as a political press secretary, I spent a couple of years permanently terrified that someone would find it useful to do me down by using my own (non-adulterous) fraternising against me. “Never become the story” — that’s the press aide’s motto.
Likely as not no one cared — and, thank heaven, there were no Facebook or Instagram photos to be mined in that era. But still, you knew that if push came to shove, the usual parliamentary omerta about the personal foibles of the people you drank and worked with — their health or marital problems, most of them open secrets — might give way at any time to gleeful dancing on a “career girl’s” grave: “Here lies a fun-loving Lib Dem. She liked a drop and it was an otherwise slow news day.”
Paranoid? Well maybe. But that’s why the prurient find it useful to tar and feather women who enjoy themselves — otherwise the rest of us might get uppity. I remember one young, female Labour MP, a promising member of the cohort insultingly dubbed “Blair’s babes”, who was encouraged early on to chat to a reporter. They got on to her romantic life and it made a lovely spread on the features pages. She went awfully quiet thereafter. It works, you see — you can keep a good woman down.
Which is a shame. Because politics is a suitable job for a woman: you live by your wits, you prosper through building alliances and winning arguments. You can make a difference.
A new dictionary of biography documenting the lives of all the women who have sat in the Commons is published this month. Those of us who contributed profiles of the pioneers agree they really did bring issues once seen as peripheral (child welfare or infant and maternal health) into the political mainstream.
As for fighting against the demeaning caricatures of women in public life, I am delighted to see that being uppity now seems to be all the rage. More than 70 women who work in Westminster, in politics and the media, have signed a letter to denounce the trashing of Ms Symonds’ reputation.
It is similarly heartening to witness the unanimous horror at the protesters who targeted the children of Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg outside his house. “Lots of people don’t like your Daddy, do you know that?” one jeered. “Lots of people hate him.” What price a political career if this is how we treat people who put their heads above the parapet?
“Live by the sword, die by the sword,” was how a tougher, tabloid-trained colleague expressed his view last time we disagreed on the subject. But social media now means there is nowhere to hide your private life, and the nastiness seems pervasive.
If those who might have the penchant and ability for a career in politics are put off by witnessing this level of contempt without the rest of us fighting back, it is the prospects for our own democracy that are being cut down. I mean, would you do it?
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