Labour deputy Angela Rayner's perceived weakness is actually her strength - Jayne Dowle

If I was Angela Rayner, and save for a decade or so, her red hair, my fancy degree and the age at which I had my first child, we have more in common than not, I would stop wearing apologetic trouser suits and grasp the mettle of the moment.

Angela Rayner. Pic: Getty.
Angela Rayner. Pic: Getty.

Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous – disgusting even – that in the middle of the most serious economic downturn in almost a century, a war and the aftermath of a deadly pandemic, that our political arena should be dominated by sleazy allegations of sexually-oriented temptation, but Ms Rayner shouldn’t cave.

She admits to being crestfallen over the Basic Instinct story (referring to the saucy 1992 film starring Sharon Stone) and says that women in politics “face sexism and misogyny every day”.

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Chin up lass. I want her remind us that she has much right to be on the front bench as anyone else in Westminster, whatever she is wearing.

Ms Rayner might have been singled out for daring to challenge the stereotypes accorded to Westminster women, but this is not just about sex and sexuality, it’s about class and privilege.

And that, at the end of the day, is worth fighting for more than deflecting a few fruity observations.

The whole allegation, that she deliberately crosses and uncrosses her legs when sitting opposite the Prime Minister to distract him, first reported in the Mail on Sunday, has descended into allegation and counter-allegation. What sounded at first like sheer nastiness from one or more (male) Tory MPs turns out – it is reported – to be rather more nuanced. It’s said that actually, it was Ms Rayner herself who first admitted to employing the tactic, sharing the joke with parliamentary colleagues while enjoying drinks on the House of Commons terrace. Ms Rayner strenuously denies this.

She condemns this episode as “gutter journalism” and has accused the as-yet unnamed source of “spreading desperate, perverted smears in their doomed attempts to save (Mr Johnson’s) skin”.

As for the Prime Minister himself, he’s dismissed the incident as “sexist tripe”, adding that he respects Ms Rayner as a parliamentarian and “deplored the misogyny” in the article. He also vowed to track down the offending MP and “unleash the terrors of the earth” upon them, which given his lacklustre record on stamping out sexism in his own party rang rather hollow.

However, whether heartfelt (given the often-vitriolic attacks on his much younger third wife, Carrie) or tactical (his own personal reputation vis a vis sexually-related shenanigans is hardly impeccable), his was quite a magnanimous response. Especially when last year, Ms Rayner herself was hauled over the coals for dismissing the Conservative Party as ‘scum’ and quite a few other things too rude to say here.

It’s certainly being taken seriously. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has even summoned the editor of the newspaper – who has so far refused, citing freedom of the press – to attend a meeting to explain his actions in sanctioning the story.

Let’s be honest though. It’s pretty standard practice for a certain kind of man – and not just in politics – to use sexual innuendo or at the very least, sexist language, to attack a woman when all other methods to bring her heel fail.

And when she frightens the life out of them, which clearly the confident and polished Ms Rayner does, things can get very nasty. The published story, perhaps unwittingly, reveals this clearly.

It quotes an unnamed Conservative MP saying that Ms Rayner “knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks”.

From where I’m sitting on the sofa, and friends who’ve seen her in action in the chamber attest to this, she more than gives Mr Johnson a run for his money. And what’s more, her striking performances at the despatch box when deputising for Labour leader and former lawyer Sir Keir Starmer puts her boss worryingly in the shade.

Her version of “debating” might have been honed in union meetings (she became a Unison trade union rep when working as a carer) and on the doorsteps of Ashton-under-Lyne, the Greater Manchester constituency she represents, but it’s no less worthy for it.

She is sadly, right to accuse the offending article of being “steeped in classism”, suggesting she was “thick” as she had attended a comprehensive, and insinuating she was “promiscuous” for having a child aged 16.

Levelling up? Where can it even start when we’re still dealing with this kind of prejudice? Her perceived weakness, as her opponents have identified, is actually her strength. The Labour party should promote this at every opportunity.

As her own party website says, “Angela is not an Oxbridge-educated, former Special Adviser, professional politician… (She was) told she would ‘never amount to anything’.”

And now look. This hullabaloo over her hemlines really is a distraction.

What the message should be is this – if she can do it, anyone can.

So rise above the fray Angela, and show them what you’re really made of.