Profile

Harriet Harman: the ‘political survivor’ who will judge Boris Johnson

The former lawyer and so-called Mother of the House is leading probe into whether PM misled Parliament

With a career spanning four decades, Harriet Harman is the longest-serving MP currently in Parliament, earning her the title of Mother of the House.

Last month, the veteran Labour politician was put in charge of the parliamentary Privileges Committee investigation into whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament over illegal lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Her appointment, after former chair Chris Bryant recused himself, was criticised by Conservative MPs. Harman was accused of prejudging the outcome of the investigation after it emerged that she had tweeted in April that Johnson did appear to have “misled the House of Commons”.

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland told The Daily Telegraph that “as a lawyer, Harriet Harman is someone who values due process above everything else and I am sure she would want to reflect very carefully about any potential impact of tweets she has issued that in any way suggest that she is biased”.

 Labour frontbencher Nick Thomas Symonds defended his colleague, telling Sky News that Harman was “a highly respected, highly experienced parliamentarian”.

Background

Born in 1950 in London’s Marylebone, her father was a Harley Street doctor and her mother was a barrister.

The future politician, who has three sisters, attended the prestigious St Paul’s Girls school before graduating with a degree in politics from the University of York. She then qualified as a solicitor. According to her official website, her first job as a solicitor was at Brent Law Centre in 1974.

Before becoming an MP, she also worked as the legal officer to human rights organisation Liberty (then called the National Council for Civil Liberties).

In 1982, she married Jack Dromey, who served as a Labour MP from 2010 until his death at the start of this year. They had three children together.

Parliamentary career

Harman was elected as the Labour MP for Peckham (now Camberwell and Peckham) in a 1982 by-election. She was re-elected in 2019 with a majority of 33,780, making it one of safest Labour seats in the country.

A profile by The Guardian in 2007 described as “a political survivor” and “fierce Labour loyalist” with an “ability to reinvent herself”. She held various shadow briefs during Labour’s long years in opposition in the 1980s and 1990s, before being appointed secretary of state for social security after the party swept to power in a landslide in 1997. But she served only one year before losing her high-profile post in a cabinet reshuffle.

Harman went on to hold various roles including solicitor general, minister of state for justice, leader of the House of Commons, secretary of state for equalities, minister for women and lord privy seal.

She was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in 2007 and served until 2015. Harman was also served acting Labour leader for several months in 2010 and then again in 2015, after Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband respectively resigned. She is the only woman to have ever held such a high-level position within the party.

Harman stood unsuccessfully in the contest to succeed John Bercow as speaker of the House of Commons in 2019. Last December, she announced that she would stand down from Parliament at the next election.

On Labour’s woman problem

Described by Politics.co.uk as “a leading feminist,” Harman has written a string of books including Woman’s Work, an examination of women’s progressive politics over the last 30 years.

Last month, she reiterated calls for the next Labour leader to be a women. The Labour veteran told GB News that her party’s failure to have elected a female leader during its 122-year history was “embarrassing”.

"I think it’s partly because women in the Labour Party are more subversive than the women in the Conservative Party. The women in the Conservative Party tend to work with men without challenging them in quite the way we do,” she said.

She also urged her party to keep all-female shortlists for selecting MP candidates, arguing that they were “incredibly important” for ensuring gender parity in Parliament.

Asked why she never ran for the Labour leadership, Harman said: “I had such a battering in my political journey that I just didn’t feel that I could take the Labour Party from that transition from opposition into government.

“Partly because I’d always been challenging, challenging the press, challenging everybody and demanding progress, and that doesn’t make you very ‘leadershipy’, it makes you more like an outsider and a challenger. There was an absolute swarm of men going for it, and I just thought, ‘well, it might be him or it might be him’, and I sort of screened out those people who said, ‘you should be doing it’.”

Controversies

Harman became “the politician we all love to hate” during her tenure as social security minister when she carried through unpopular lone parent cuts, reported The Guardian.

Her decision to send her three children to selective schools at a time when Labour was extolling the values of state education also did little to endear her to the public.

In 2007, while serving under Brown, Harman was embroiled in a donation scandal that saw her position as deputy leader “hanging by a thread”, reported The Telegraph.

Her reputation took another hit in 2014 when it emerged that, along with fellow veteran Labour MP Patricia Hewitt, she had worked for the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) when the group granted “affiliate” status to the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which campaigned to lower the age of consent.The Daily Mail, which broke the story, accused Harman of trying “to water down child pornography laws”.

Harman told the BBC that she had “regrets” that “this vile organisation, PIE, ever existed and that it ever had anything to do with NCCL”.  But “it is the Daily Mail that should be apologising for their smear and innuendo”, she said.

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