I try as hard as possible not to link to the Daily Mail — it’s my small and admittedly token gesture not to encourage them. And Quentin Letts is the Mail at its most unpleasantly execrable, slavering to stick his pen-knife into anyone he cares to disdain, especially if they’re female or have a funny accent or some other personal tic to pick on.
Last week, he laid into Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone. It was classic play-the-woman-I’ve-got-no-balls Letts:
Though aged 60 (and counting), she teeters up to the Despatch Box in high heels, grinning girlishly at the Opposition benches before hesitantly lisping a few opening apologies for losing her place or some such calamity. Think of Ulrika Jonsson corpsing during one of her weather forecasts in the Eighties. Quite often Mrs Featherstone giggles, says she did not quite catch the drift of the question or pushes her long fringe out of her smouldering eyes and gives a hapless shrug of her shoulders. She invariably pulls at the bottom of her skimpy designer top, the better to accentuate her slinky torso. Shades of a Wonderbra advert — from the Minister for Women!
Sometimes she manages to read her Whitehall brief without stumbling. When it comes to producing extempore justifications for Government policy, however, her little card house collapses. She is by some distance the Coalition Government’s weakest link. Television quiz show piranha Anne Robinson would make very, very short work of her.
It may, therefore, be regarded as a misfortune for the Government that this gum-brained specimen, this most palpable parliamentary dingbat, is the officer in charge of two hot political controversies (gay marriage and the right of Christians to wear a cross at work), which has put her at loggerheads with the Anglican and Catholic Churches.
In this confrontation, she resembles a nocturnal nudist caught in the headlights of a speeding lorry — part-comical, part agonising, likely to end in a squeal of brakes and nasty bruises.
And so it continues ad nauseum. Especially nauseum.
The Independent’s Mary Ann Sieghart fires a few well-aimed arrows at Quentin Letts in her column today (they’ll be easily deflected by his Mail-stuffed wallet, of course):
In a witheringly misogynistic article about the Liberal Democrat minister Lynne Featherstone last week, Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail wrote: “Though aged 60 (and counting), she teeters up to the despatch box in high heels, grinning girlishly.” Having gratuitously mentioned that she is “of Jewish stock”, he then admitted she looked good for her age, but only because of “whatever seaweed-yoghurty unguent the intensely fashion-conscious Lynne slaps on her pelt of an evening”.
Her appearance has nothing to do with her ability as a minister. Yet, we’re told, at 60, she’s too old for heels and too old to smile. She’s also, according to Letts, an “ageing vamp”. And she’s covered in animal fur. Nice.
There’s a worrying tendency these days for successful women to be derided as either too old or too young, with not much in between. This is reflected in a tricky new career structure which peaks at exactly the age when working mothers are forced to tread water because of their children.
None of these words will change the Daily Mail’s outlook, of course. It knows its audience far better than its target market wants to know itself: it plays on that nasty piece of schadenfreude inside us to which we are all prey but most of us with a little effort can overcome. After all, why bother to improve yourself when it’s much easier to make someone else feel worse instead? And so much more fun when you can join in with lots of others in pointing and laughing at them, too.
Such is the Mail’s philosophy. It’s why it hires cheap hacks like Quentin Letts. It’s why it revels in castigating the flaws in others. And the worst thing is that the Mail is simply holding up a mirror, reflecting and only occasionally distorting what its readers want.
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.