Politics is the most brutal of sports. But even by the standards of this particular rumble in the Whitehall jungle, what has happened to Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s erstwhile, ill-fated Press secretary, is pretty below the belt.
I hesitate to say sexist, too, because I’m the last person to play that particular card; but it’s hard to take it out of the equation.
Certainly, when Dominic Cummings messed up — as he did to a much greater degree with that infamous trip to Barnard Castle — he was cut way more slack inside No. 10 than Stratton was. Which was not hard, since she got none.
A tearful Allegra Stratton announced she had quit offering a ‘profound apology’ for giving the impression that she was ‘making light’ of Covid rules in a leaked video. Ms Stratton – who quipped on the video that she had not attended a Christmas party at Downing Street last Christmas – wept as she read her resignation statement tonight
Cummings had actually, demonstrably, broken the rules. But then he is a man . . . and politics is — still — a man’s world. And they always protect their own. It’s so ingrained they don’t even know they’re doing it.
That said, Stratton was absolutely right to resign yesterday. It was clear from the moment the video was leaked that she had no choice.
Not because it was irrefutable proof of guilt or arrogance or wrongdoing — it wasn’t any of those things.
But because to remain in such a nest of cowards and vipers would have been a colossal act of self-harm. She is much better off out of it. It may not feel like that now, but once she gets her head fully out of the cesspit, she’ll realise it.
In fact, she’ll probably look back on this as the best thing that ever happened to her.
It could be that the leak of that clip to ITV was made by a member of the video production company.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a press conference for the latest Covid-19 update in the Downing Street briefing room in central London on December 8, 2021
But it could also have been one of the group involved in the practice session — someone who was prepared to make it public in the full knowledge it would destroy her. Someone who knew that it would deflect attention from the real story, turning the focus instead on Stratton. That she would have her face on every front page and be humiliated and abused on social media.
Because the truth is that, as a society — in the Press, on the internet — we still love demonising women. Especially if, like Stratton, they are bright, attractive, successful and ambitious. It’s as though we just can’t wait to take them down a peg or two. Just like that old Harry Enfield sketch: ‘Women, know your limits!’
We’ve seen it in relation to Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie, dubbed ‘Carrie Antoinette’ and characterised as a meddling shrew.
The fact is that Stratton never sat well at No. 10. Cummings opposed her appointment, largely because he thought she would end up being an ally to Carrie — and ever since she has been more briefed against than briefing.
Quite simply, there were a lot of people around the Prime Minister who didn’t like the idea of a couple of women having so much influence. Who still don’t. Which might explain the leak.
That was one of several training sessions designed to prepare Stratton for taking tough Press questions. It was supposed to be a private space in which to practise failing — which is what she did. Making it public is not only a grotesque abuse of trust, it’s also deeply unfair.
In the bombshell video a No 10 aide asks a question about ‘a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night’, to which Allegra Stratton laughed and replied: ‘I went home.’
Much of the criticism of Stratton has focused on her laughter during the session, as though she were mocking lockdown.
But anyone with half a brain can see that’s not arrogant laughter — it’s nervous laughter.
She’s reacting to the awkwardness of the situation, and at being put through her paces in a bizarre mock Press conference by colleagues clearly alluding to something she knows is wrong but which, theoretically, it might be her job to defend.
It’s a shambles, but not in the way it’s been depicted. Because what you see is not someone taking the mickey out of the British public: it’s a woman who’s struggling to lie convincingly.
In my book, that’s no bad thing. But it probably also explains why No. 10 was so keen, ultimately, to throw her under the bus.
The fact that, so far, she is the only member of the team with the balls to take responsibility for this mess by resigning shows us how wrong they are. Aren’t they at all ashamed of themselves?
Where is Ed Oldfield, the man who threw her that question, in all of this? Why does it always have to be the woman who carries the can for the mistakes of men?
Standing outside her house, facing the glare of the cameras as she delivered her resignation speech, Stratton looked utterly defeated.
I recognise that look, I know how it feels to be defeated. Defeated by a political machine that twists people out of shape, that warps their true intentions — and that shows no mercy.