It began as a misogynistic allegation that Angela Rayner liked to cross and uncross her legs to distract Boris Johnson and has exploded into full-blown “Pestminster” scandal. There are currently 56 MPs under investigation for sexual misconduct and pressure is mounting on a Tory MP accused of watching porn in the Commons to quit.
Rayner has united MPs across the house in outrage at her treatment. Johnson tweeted that he “deplored the misogyny” directed at Rayner; the Tory chairman of parliament’s women and equalities committee, Caroline Noakes, said the MP source behind the article should be “hanging their heads in shame”. Labour’s Jess Philips, who says an element of sexism and classism in Westminster has often led her to being mistaken for Rayner, calls the allegation “vicious and vitriolic” and tells me that since she started as an MP in 2015 “sexism has actually got worse because of the idea there has to be a culture war angle to literally everything.”
“When I was elected David Cameron was prime minister and there were examples of sexism in disguise as kindness – such as his ‘calm down dear’ comment”, she says. “There is almost something refreshing about this kind of outright sexism – that it is so obvious. In my first year of being in parliament a cabinet minister put his finger to his lips and gestured to me to calm down. A member of the treasury benches [the government’s front row of seats in the house of Commons] did that to me in the last three weeks”.
Rayner will surely be taking some comfort that the furore has led to a reckoning for sexism in Westminster, even if she is uncomfortable with how we got here. Described as ‘feminist with a capital F’, she has been calling attention to the problem for years. She made headlines in 2019 when she declared the Conservative party “infected with sexism from top to bottom”, after Boris Johnson stood up for the Tory candidate for Broadland, Nick Conrad, when he was revealed to have once told women to “keep your knickers on” to avoid being raped.
She got into trouble in last September after calling Tories “scum” at the Labour party conference. But retorted that she would be very happy to apologise if Johnson also apologised for some of his previous comments, including that the children of single mothers were “ignorant and illegitimate”. In an interview with Grazia she revealed was often ignored in favour of her male advisors when she enters a room, and believes that “women face some level of misogyny on a daily basis”.
This week isn’t the first time Rayner has been on the receiving end of sexist and classist comments from the opposition and the media. In November last year Michael Fabricant accused her of “squawking on” and claimed she wasn’t “capable of holding down any job which requires intellect”, while Good Morning Britain’s Richard Madeley referred to her, patronisingly, as Keir Starmer’s “best girl” in an interview.
Abuse has come from the left too. In 2016 she spoke out about rape and death threats from “someone claiming to be a Jeremy Corbyn supporter” and said she had had panic buttons fitted at her home. That same year she said she had received emails attacking her for her northern accent – including the line “you sound thick as mince”.
Why does Rayner attract such vitriol? The discrimination faced by female working class MPs face has been well documented. Pat Glass, former Labour MP for Durham, has said that women MPs are mocked for northern accents by male colleagues. “If [the men] spot a northern accent, they start shouting about it to put you off.”
Rayner grew up in poverty in Stockport, a background which makes her unusual among Westminster types. She has recalled going on a fact-finding trip with an old school Tory, and talking to him about a group of travellers who had been taking their horses onto her estate, causing a row. “Oh yes?” he said. “We have llamas on our estate”. Rayner had to point out she was talking about a council estate.
Her childhood, she has said, was “full of fear”. She was a carer for her bi-polar mother, who would accidentally give her dog food or shaving foam to eat because she could not read the labels on the tins. Rayner has spoken about pestering friends to let her eat at their houses on Sundays or she would not be fed. When she was invited to the Spectator’s 2017 Parliamentarian of the Year awards she joked that she wasn’t used to lavish dinners and “hadn’t seen so many knives on a table since the last Stockport police amnesty.”
At 16, Rayner became pregnant, left school and was told she would “never amount to anything”. Her first job was working as a carer for the elderly in Stockport. She was constantly questioning managers, and a colleague suggested she would make a good union rep. Despite “not knowing what a trade union was”, she was soon a senior steward, fighting against the privatisation of the home care service.
In 2015, she was elected as the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. Shortly after she attracted a blaze of media attention when she tried to order a pair of R2D2 themed high heels and ended up threatening the store on official House of Commons notepaper when they sold out. (The affair was dubbed “Shoebacca-gate”). Despite the bumpy start her rise was swift.
When 63 frontbenchers resigned in the summer 2016 during the Labour party’s crisis over Corbyn’s leadership, she was promoted from shadow pensions minister to shadow for women and equalities, and then a few days later to shadow education secretary – the youngest ever to hold that role.
That was Rayner’s moment: the education brief was personal. Labour’s Sure Start centres were mentioned in her maiden speech in the Commons and she credits them with “rescuing” her. She did well and was promoted to deputy leader of the party, but relations with Sir Keir Starmer were strained when he reshuffled the cabinet without giving her a heads up. There was an attempt to remove Rayner as party chair, but after an internal party power struggle it resulted in her being promoted.
Rayner has described herself as part of the “soft left” of the Labour party – less of a Corbynite than her former flatmate Rebecca Long Bailey (who once complained about Rayner’s habit of leaving her loofahs lying around the bathroom) – and an outspoken fan of Blair. On a podcast in February, she said she was “quite hardline” on law and order, saying she she wanted police to “shoot your terrorists and ask questions second”. In response former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott tweeted, “Is Angela suggesting a mandatory death sentence for suspected (but not convicted) ‘terrorists’ ?”
Rayner has at times has been spoken of as a future leader by fellow Labour MPs. This week has shown she can handle difficult situations with confidence and humour, an important skill in any political career.