Alison Rowat: Carrie Johnson, victim of sexism or valid topic of debate?

WITH the skyrocketing cost of living, it’s rare that a bill payer isn’t wondering where savings can be made. Was it worth, for example, the cost of gas and electricity to get up and watch the Sunday political shows yesterday?

Depends on who was answering the questions. Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary for Business and Energy, seemed like the right man in the right place at the right time. His first stop was Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday, where he told the presenter: “It’s going to be a very difficult time.”

Phillips was disappointed. “People will say, ‘Is that all you’ve got’?”

The Minister outlined the aid set out by the Chancellor last week, which includes an initial rebate of £200 on energy bills from October, to be paid at £40 a year for five years.

Best value, even if his message was troubling, was John Allan, the chairman of Tesco. Appearing on BBC1’s Sunday Morning, he said the worst was yet to come with food prices. While these had risen 1% in the last quarter, this could rise to 5% in the coming months due to rising energy costs.

“We are concerned, and I am sure many people are concerned, that people are having to struggle to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families and clearly that is not a situation that any of us should tolerate,” he said.

On BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show, Audrey Flanagan of the Glasgow South East Foodbank was concerned that the situation had gone beyond choosing between heating and eating. “We will see people die,” she said.

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Michael Matheson, Scottish Energy Secretary, shared those fears, saying the UK government was not doing enough to help.

Compared to this, the other main topic of the day, Boris Johnson’s continuing problems, seemed trivial. Still, the letters continue to pour in, with some Sunday papers predicting the Prime Minister could face a vote of no confidence this week.

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Letters to “the 22” are not the only way to show disapproval to the Prime Minister. One could, like the Chancellor and Secretary of Health, criticize him for falsely claiming that Keir Starmer was personally at fault for not prosecuting Jimmy Savile.

Any idea that Kwarteng would join the critics was soon dismissed. She told Phillips that it had been “perfectly reasonable” for the Prime Minister to mention Savile in the context of a debate about leadership and accountability.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith was also not going to join the rebellion. The parliamentarian was interviewed from his home via Zoom, having spent the last week in isolation after contracting Covid. Addressing the cost-of-living crisis had to be the government’s priority, not embark on another leadership contest, he said.

Mr. Kwarteng found himself drawn into the day’s other topic of conversation: the Prime Minister’s wife, Carrie. The Mail on Sunday had published excerpts from First Lady, a new biography of Lord Ashcroft.

Interviewed on Times Radio’s T&G with Tom Newton Dunn, Kwarteng was asked if there was any element of sexism in the way Ms Johnson was being treated.

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“I don’t think he’s sexist, I’m not going to go down the road of saying he’s sexist, but I do say his views are under scrutiny in a way that maybe other prime ministers’ wives weren’t.”

The subject came up during the newspaper’s review on Sunday morning, with journalists Sarah Vine of the Mail and Jessica Elgot, the Guardian’s chief political correspondent.

Mrs. Vine, the ex-wife of Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Leveling Up, had written a sympathy column for Mrs. Johnson. She called the treatment of the prime minister’s wife “the political equivalent of slut-shaming” and said she was “simply a convenient scapegoat” for her mistakes.

Elgot agreed, up to a point. He said there was a difference between Mrs Johnson and other prime ministers’ wives.

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“She is, in every way, a political player, has held high posts in the Conservative Party, is friends with many of her closest advisers, and has fallen out with several of her [them] that are now gone. So clearly he has significant influence in the government of the country.

“Now we might think it’s inappropriate for her to have that, and blame the Prime Minister for it, but because she took on that role herself, you can expect there to be some scrutiny of her policy.”

Sophie Raworth said she had planned to interview Boris Johnson but didn’t. She expected it to happen in “the next few weeks”. A prediction to take to the bank? We will see.

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This column originally appeared in our sister title, The Herald, in Scotland.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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