LONDON – Women from across British politics called Monday for action to tackle misogyny after a newspaper ran a story accusing the deputy opposition leader of trying to “distract” the prime minister during debates by crossing and uncrossing her legs.
The Mail on Sunday quoted an anonymous Conservative lawmaker as saying Labour Party Deputy Leader Angela Rayner tried to throw Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson “off his stride” as she sat across from him in the House of Commons. The article called it "a fully-clothed Parliamentary equivalent of Sharon Stone’s infamous scene in the 1992 film 'Basic Instinct,'” in which Stone distracts police interrogators while wearing a short skirt.
Rayner accused “Boris Johnson’s cheerleaders” of using “desperate, perverted smears."
“I stand accused of a ‘ploy’ to “distract” the helpless PM - by being a woman, having legs and wearing clothes,” she wrote on Twitter. “Women in politics face sexism and misogyny every day — and I’m no different.”
Rayner, who comes from a working-class family in northern England, left school when she was 16 and got her political start in the trade union movement. That makes a sharp contrast with Johnson, who was educated at the elite private school Eton and Oxford University. Johnson has sometimes struggled to parry her attacks during debates.
The prime minister condemned the article, writing on Twitter: “As much as I disagree with Angela Rayner on almost every political issue, I respect her as a parliamentarian and deplore the misogyny directed at her anonymously today.”
Johnson said Monday he had gotten in touch with Rayner about the article, which he called “the most appalling load of sexist, misogynist tripe.”
He said the anonymous lawmaker who made the “Basic Instinct” comments would face “the terrors of the Earth” if identified.
“It’s totally intolerable, that kind of thing," Johnson told British broadcasters.
More than a century after the first female lawmaker was elected to Britain’s Parliament, women make up 34% of the 650 legislators in the House of Commons. Long known for its boozy, macho atmosphere, Parliament is now a more diverse place.
Still, some say change has not gone far enough. Many female U.K. politicians said the article was an extreme example of the sexism they encounter daily.
Labour legislator Rachel Reeves said she hoped the article would prompt people to "call out this misogyny and sexism for what it is (so) that we get some change, because Angela and no other MP should have to put up with this sort of rubbish.”
Senior Conservatives also condemned the remarks. Health Secretary Sajid Javid tweeted: “No woman in politics should have to put up with this.”
Conservative lawmaker Caroline Nokes, who heads Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, said she had asked the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, to censure Glen Owen, the journalist who wrote the article.
Hoyle said he had summoned the paper’s editor to discuss the article.
Hoyle told lawmakers that media freedom was “one of the building blocks of our democracy,” but that publishing such “misogynistic and offensive” comments “can only deter women who might be considering standing for election, to the detriment of us all.”
Associated Newspapers, which publishes The Mail on Sunday, declined to comment on the topic.