DAN HODGES: The truth about the story Angela Rayner branded a desperate, perverted smear… SHE was the one who told it
It’s time for people to know the truth. On a chilly evening just after the turn of the year, in between the evening votes, about a dozen MPs gathered in the House of Commons for a cigarette break. Standing among them – positioned by the balustrade that sits opposite the large double doors leading out to Parliament’s long Thameside terrace – was Angela Rayner.
Labour’s Deputy Leader was engaging in the usual light-hearted banter that MPs of all parties indulge in when they feel the political spotlight is off them. Then she began to share a joke about how she tries to distract Boris Johnson when they sit opposite one another at Prime Minister’s Questions.
According to one MP who was part of the group, ‘she said, “I like to do my Sharon Stone trick. I cross and uncross my legs and give him a flash of my ginger g******” [a vulgar and offensive colloquialism].’ A second MP, who was with the group, also recalled hearing her use the phrase.
As Rayner was making the joke, another MP joined the group. She told me: ‘I didn’t hear the whole thing, but I remember hearing her say those words.’ A fourth MP said: ‘Angela was telling us how she distracts Boris.’ They too confirmed the use of the vulgar colloquialism. So four MPs all heard Rayner use exactly the same words.
In response to what everyone recognised was a racy but light-hearted aside, Rayner’s colleagues laughed, and carried on smoking. Then they all went their separate ways.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner (pictured) has been at the centre of a sexism row involved claims she said would cross and uncross her legs to distract Boris Johnson
Angela Rayner (pictured next to Sir Kier Starmer) took to Twitter to call claims she had previously joked about trying to distract Boris Johnson with her legs as ‘desperate, perverted smears’
Last weekend, The Mail on Sunday recounted the incident, as told by one of the MPs who was present. At which point, the world went insane.
A spokesman for Rayner insisted the report was ‘categorically untrue’. Rayner posted a tweet in which she raged: ‘Boris Johnson’s cheerleaders have resorted to spreading desperate, perverted smears.’ Johnson described the story as ‘appalling sexist, misogynist tripe’. The Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, condemned the article as ‘misogynistic and offensive’. He then announced he was summoning the Editor of The Mail on Sunday to the Commons.
BUT then something that is relatively unusual in our era of social-media-fuelled culture crusades occurred. The truth began to emerge. A recording of a podcast Rayner made earlier in the year with comedian Matt Forde revealed the terrace banter wasn’t the only time she had joked about ‘doing a Sharon Stone’ at PMQs.
Several MPs – a number of whom had been scared off by threats from their own Prime Minister to unleash ‘the terrors of the Earth’ on the story’s original source – came forward to myself and other journalists to confirm she had made the comments. The Mail on Sunday politely rejected the Speaker’s summons, and Sir Lindsay backed off.
But the whole furore has revealed a number of important things about how our current political discourse is framed.
Rayner’s attempt to cover up her comments on the terrace was – on one level – understandable. I’m told she was genuinely embarrassed at the thought of them being made public. One colleague told me: ‘She was honestly worried about the fact that her kids would get to see this.’
While on ITV’s Lorraine (pictured), she said she finds the manner in which people talk about her background as quite offensive, as she had a child when she was young
But that instinctive, and human, reaction does not grant a licence for deception. Had Rayner responded to the story by deploying the same frankness and self-awareness she had displayed in her podcast, the whole uproar would have been avoided.
Instead, she tried to leverage the moment by painting herself as a victim of Tory sexism and classism. And that represented a false deflection. In reality, Angela Rayner is one of the more popular Labour MPs in the eyes of her opponents. They like her directness and down-to-earth style. They enjoy the fact she’s prepared to share a drink and a joke with them. Which is why many Conservatives were so surprised and angered when she made her notorious ‘Tory scum’ comment.
Speaking on ITV’s Lorraine, she claimed: ‘They talk about my background because I had a child when I was young as if to say I’m promiscuous… It was quite offensive for people of my background.’ But in her Forde podcast, she gave an honest, and more perceptive, assessment of how senior Tories engage with her.
Responding to Forde’s observation that the PM treats her with respect, she said Johnson recognises that ‘if I start attacking her, I’ll look really crap as a posh guy from a posh school so I’ll just try and compliment her in a sort of backhand way’, adding: ‘I think that’s how they try and sort of deal with me. Because they don’t really know how to deal with me.’
As Rayner’s denials began to unravel, her defenders tried to change tack. The saga needed to be looked at in the wider context of the fight against Westminster’s misogynistic culture, they said.
A battle that needs to be fought. Last Sunday it was reported that three Cabinet Ministers and two Shadow Cabinet Ministers are among 56 MPs who have been referred to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme over claims of sexual misconduct. And last night, MP Neil Parish resigned after admitting watching porn in the Commons chamber.
So there is no need to confect outrage. The issues confronted by women MPs and staff of Parliament are all too real. And if people want to throw Rayner’s comments into the midst of the wider conversation about Westminster culture, fine. But someone must then explain what the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party joking about distracting the Prime Minister by crossing and uncrossing her legs at him contributes to that debate.
Because this is the key question. Do the facts and the truth still matter, even when they tell the wrong story?
The tale Rayner and her allies want told is a simple one. A neanderthal Tory MP, motivated by class and gender hatred, concocted a comparison with 90s sex siren Sharon Stone, then used it to smear a working-class Labour MP. And it provides a compelling narrative. The single mother from a Stockport housing estate being targeted by – and fighting back against – the Etonian bully boys.
But the problem with the truth is it can be fickle. It doesn’t always come down on the side of the righteous. Or the self-righteous.
And this is the truth of the whole saga. The story Angela Rayner branded ‘a desperate, perverted smear’ was actually a story told by Angela Rayner herself, about herself. The language the PM condemned as ‘appalling, sexist, misogynist tripe’ was Angela Rayner’s language. The claim the Speaker condemned as ‘misogynistic and offensive’ was her own.
Two weeks ago, as Tory whips desperately attempted to corral their MPs into blocking an inquiry by the Privileges Committee into whether the PM lied to the Commons over Partygate, Rayner tweeted: ‘You want the truth? They can’t handle the truth.’
But after the events of the past seven days, a separate question must now be posed. Can she?
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