Print

Harriet Harman: even more charismatic than Stephen Byers

A surprising early morning call comes in from Labour Party headquarters. It is my new friend Tony Topspin-Smythe, who works in the party’s information control module. Ever since we met at a Tina Brown launch party, Tony has been promising me an off-the-record exclusive from within government.

“The word on the street is that you’re writing one of those satirical-but-not-too-serious columns,” he said.

“That’s not how I would… ”

“Great, great. I’ve got a perfect subject for you. Are you ready for this? I can reveal, completely off the record, something which will be totally dynamite when it gets out. Are you ready for this? Harriet Harman is not as dull as everybody thinks. No, really. I can let you have some of the hilarious stuff that she’s done. It’d be perfect for your column.”

“Write it yourself, then. I’m pretty busy, as it happens. This is your column from now on.”

“What? I was hoping to brief you and then you could sort of rework it from the raw material.”

“You’re using up precious words, Tony. Over to you…”

Ah, yes. Hi, everyone, and a very humorous good day to you all.

Now, that Harriet Harman – what’s she all about, then? There are a few people around who think that she’s become Labour’s deputy leader by clambering up a ladder of negatives – she’s not too small like Hazel Blears, not too Blairite like Alan Johnson, not too smug like Hilary Benn, not too unknown like Jon Cruddas, nor too orange like Peter Hain.

How little they know about the fiery, witty, fun-loving person that is Harriet Ruth Harman QC! A glimpse at the person behind the politician suggests that she is possibly the most charismatic Labour politician since Stephen “Interesting” Byers set the Transport and Local Government Department alight back in 2001.

Even at school, there were signs that Harriet was something of a wild child. Educated at St Paul’s, a notoriously easy-going London independent school, she stood out as a personality, once making a memorable contribution to the school debating society about the role of social security benefits in modern society.

But what her contemporaries remember most vividly was how similar Harriet looked to the barefoot pop star Sandie Shaw. She might even have sung Shaw’s famous hit “Puppet on a String” at a school concert had she not realised that appearing on stage without shoes was in breach of school footwear regulations.

But Harriet had her rebellious side. While still a teenager, she was known as “Hazza the Heartbreaker”, and on one occasion would have gone to a Glastonbury Festival had it not clashed with a Young Labour think-tank debate on trades union reform.

Having chosen the law as her profession, she introduced her own brand of zaniness into what was once a straight-laced profession. Asked to score during the famous Barristers vs Solicitors cricket match, she refused on the grounds that the work was secretarial, but agreed to present a prize to the winner. Her opening witticism, “I am neither bowler nor batter, and am rather too sensible to play silly mid-on”, is still repeated in legal circles.

Harriet has never allowed politics to dominate her marriage to party treasurer Jack Dromey, with whom she has three children. At Christmas, the household rocks with laughter as the family plays its favourite game of thinking up unlikely composite motions for the Labour Party conference. Harriet is a natural impersonator and is often mistaken for other people, among them Margaret Hodge, Davina McCall, Patricia Hewitt and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Many of the unforgettable New Labour phrases of recent years have Harriet’s stamp on them: “rights and responsibilities”, “the respect agenda”, “equality of opportunity” on all “delivery platforms”, not least for those all-important “hard-working families”.

On becoming deputy leader, Harriet hit the ground running, immediately suggesting that those in government should listen to the people. That’s the kind of style we need in politics today.