First came that ‘power bob’. Now Labour’s Rachel Reeves, dreaming of being the first woman Chancellor, tells MoS: ‘I admire Margaret Thatcher… it would be foolish not to!’
She must have asked herself the question countless times.
Today, Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor, says it out loud. ‘It’s difficult, isn’t it? There has never been one before. You do think, what does a female Chancellor of the Exchequer look like?’
Sharp trouser suit? Meticulous bob? Power heels?
Actually, under the table, Reeves is wearing trainers, and sensibly so. For after our interview she has to dash to take her children, aged ten and eight, to the dentist.
‘I always wear trainers when I’m running around but I’ve always got a little bag with my proper shoes in.’
Pragmatic: Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, shuns power heels for trainers while ‘running around’ and claims to be a safe pair of hands for the economy
It is now nearly four weeks since Reeves, 44, delivered her most important speech yet, at possibly the last Labour Party conference before the next General Election.
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Amid all the policy pledges (committing to economic growth via private investment, setting up a team to claw back the money the Treasury lost during the pandemic; vowing to wage war on private schools and close non-dom loopholes) was one overriding message from her: Labour won’t crash the economy; you can trust me with the money.
Of course, Reeves should be sure-footed on money matters. An economist who previously worked at the Bank of England, she had been building up to this since her appointment to the Shadow Cabinet in 2021.
As she puts it herself: ‘When Keir gave me the job he said, ‘By the next Election, people have got to trust you with the money and picture me as the Prime Minister.’ ‘
Her conference speech was always going to be something of a political land grab, but the shock factor came in how it was styled out.
With its talk of ‘iron-clad’ fiscal discipline, delivered in a strident voice (by a woman in a blue suit), this could even have been a speech from a Tory, and a specific one at that.
The comparisons with Margaret Thatcher were unmistakable.
Some Left-wing politicians might move quickly to stress the differences between themselves and Thatcher.
Not Reeves, who has always been to the Right of the party. But is she calling herself a child of Thatcher? I think she is.
‘When I was three months old, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister,’ she points out, when we meet in a South London cafe.
Rachel reveals: ‘When Keir gave me the job he said, ‘By the next Election, people have got to trust you with the money and picture me as the Prime Minister.’ ‘
‘As I got older I rebelled against that sort of politics but I never doubted that a woman could be Prime Minister, because Thatcher was there, doing it.
‘My generation of women, of course we have been influenced by her.
‘Whether you agree with her or not, she smashed glass ceilings and shifted the boundaries. You’d be foolish not to recognise that.’
Reeves claims a profound sense of history and has written three books, the latest of which has been embroiled in one of those controversies that can derail careers.
Her latest book was embroiled in one of those controversies that can derail careers after she was accused of plagiarism
It has emerged that entire paragraphs in her book on women in economics were copied from other sources, including Wikipedia, without accreditation, leading to harmful ‘plagiarism row’ headlines with the Tories branding her a ‘copy and paste politician’.
Today, she tries to brush it off – ‘there are worse things to be accused of than copying and pasting some facts about amazing women’, she says – but she’s clearly cross with herself.
She explains she ‘had help’ from a team of researchers and that in the reprint, ‘we will make sure that the bibliography is complete. But these things happen’.
Thatcher is very much in the book, commanding only one less entry in the index than Tony Blair (Reeves was 17 in 1996 when she joined Blair’s Labour Party).
At the risk of sounding flippant, did she learn anything about the importance of having hair as uncompromising as Mrs T’s, because her hair got as much praise as her speech did?
By way of admission, Reeves confesses she had a hairdresser come to her hotel room before her big Labour Party conference speech.
But should we care how our female politicians style their hair?
ITV breakfast presenter Susanna Reid was criticised for even asking Reeves about it but the Shadow Chancellor has almost academic interest in this.
In her last book, she observed that the women of Westminster have been trivialised or objectified by the focus on what they wear, though noted: ‘Female MPs have also used fashion and appearance to tell us something about them and their politics, often to great effect.’
And who got it bang on, in her opinion? Mrs T.
‘Well-coiffured hair, bright blue suits and, of course, the handbag were Thatcher’s trademark – a source of both appeal and caricature,’ she wrote.
So how ready is Reeves for the challenge of being our first ever female holder-of-the-nation’s-purse-strings? In person, she has the air of someone who has the removal van booked, though she insists this is not the case.
‘I’m not superstitious but I don’t want to tempt fate and start measuring the curtains. But it’s one of the few glass ceilings we still have to smash and I hope to have the chance to do it.’
What if someone beats her to it? There are whispers in Westminster that Rishi Sunak could use a pre-Election reshuffle to appoint a female Chancellor.
Reeves scoffs. ‘Well, obviously I’ve just written a book about getting more women in economics, so if Rishi wanted a woman [Chancellor], I would celebrate that.
‘But, having seven chancellors in 13 years – and this would be the eighth – is not normal.’
So if she does make it into No 11 Downing Street, we’d better get to know the woman who is asking us to trust her with our money.
Her constituency is Leeds West, but she grew up in Beckenham, South-East London, the daughter of two teachers with socialist leanings but middle-class lives.
‘My parents were from working-class backgrounds but they had middle-class jobs.’
That she and her sister became MPs – her younger sister Ellie is the Labour MP for Lewisham West and Penge – is interesting.
They were state school-educated but Rachel was the swot. ‘Ellie was the more rebellious one. She’s the one who dyed her hair blue.’
Reeves can’t think of a single time in her youth when she rebelled.
This is dangerous territory for a politician after Theresa May was lampooned for saying that running through a farmer’s wheat field was her solitary transgressive act as a child.
But Reeves sounds as if she got her kicks from achieving. A champion chess player, she developed a taste for beating the public school boys (‘I’ve been in male dominated environments all my life,’ she says). She got straight As but her passion was mathematics.
‘It’s logical. I like certainty. Although I recognise that politics doesn’t have much certainty.’
She punches the air when I ask what grade she got to with her childhood flute lessons. ‘Eight!’. Is she a pushy mum with her own kids? ‘Yeah.’
Reeves studied at Oxford University and the London School of Economics and began her career at the Bank of England on the same day as the future Tory Minister Matt Hancock. She remembers him being much more cocky than she was.
‘Obviously our politics were completely different.’ Personalities, too? ‘He was probably a bit more of a loner but very confident, wanting to put himself forward. He would always sit at the front and have a question.’
Where was she? At the back? ‘I was probably just getting on with the job,’ she says. By chance, they started as MPs on the same day, too, in 2010. Did she watch him on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity, in the jungle?
‘No. I was too busy being an MP. But former colleagues did text me to say ‘Please don’t ever do that programme’. Don’t worry, I won’t.’
Reeves is possibly the parliamentarian least likely to hurl herself into the jungle. She is married to civil servant Nicholas Joicey, director general for finance for the Department for Work and Pensions.
They met when he was a speechwriter for Gordon Brown and she tells me that they rejected the idea of going out for their first Valentine’s Day in favour of watching a BBC2 Newsnight special on the Swedish banking crisis.
It was her own appearance on Newsnight, in 2013, that led to her being called ‘boring, snoring’ by the show’s then editor Ian Katz.
Those who know Reeves talk of her non-tribal, no-nonsense approach – which Labour hopes will speak, in spades, to voters
Admittedly, he hadn’t meant to tweet his critique to the world. He thought he was sending a private message. She’s still smarting, a little.
‘It was pathetic. He has apologised profusely since but I thought it was rude. He’d invited me on the programme. It was Newsnight! I was talking about economic policy. What was he expecting?’
In truth, Reeves has a great sense of humour and a booming laugh, which is unleashed again when I ask if she or her husband sorts the bills at home.
‘I’m the only economist. He did modern history, so I’m in charge,’ she says. ‘We have a joint account but I do all the bills.’
She is keen to stress she knows what it is to grow up having to be careful with money.
‘We weren’t living in poverty by any means but I remember Mum sitting at the kitchen table when the bank statement came in, ticking every receipt off.’
A woman after Mrs T’s heart. Her mum now helps with childcare, goes into battle with her on the campaign trail and phones her after she sees her on TV (‘Mostly to say ‘You look tired. Are you getting enough sleep?’ ‘).
Little wonder she can look tired. This is a woman who sends 3,200 Christmas cards every year. ‘I do a list and start in the summer.’
Reeves has been hailed as Labour’s ‘secret weapon’, though the ‘secret’ part is curious, given that she’s never made any secret of her leanings. Perhaps her ambition was missed, though?
When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, she refused to serve in his Shadow Cabinet (and wasn’t asked anyway). Was it, I asked, because she opposed all he stood for. ‘Or most of it,’ I correct myself.
‘No, ‘all’ is fine,’ she smiles. ‘I kept myself busy but I didn’t want to serve in his team so there were some difficult years.’
She was either playing the long game (possible, given her chess expertise, having once won a national under-14s tournament) or she is a rare parliamentarian who put her principles above her ambition.
She got her recognition thanks to Sir Keir Starmer – who did serve, wholeheartedly, under Corbyn, opposing Brexit.
Eyebrows were really raised yesterday when former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke praised her as a ‘reassuring and responsible’ figure’
Not a numbers nerd himself, Starmer recognised that he needed one. She has been called his ‘economics Yoda’, but also advises on wider policy issues. ‘We speak or text every day,’ she says.
Interestingly, she’s not as tongue-tangled as her boss has been on trans issues. ‘I know what a woman is,’ she says.
‘You can also have trans women but it is different. I think biology matters and I do think single-sex spaces are important.’
Would a female Chancellor be a better Chancellor, perhaps more cautious? She says not necessarily but quotes the then President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, who observed that the world might look very different ‘had it been Lehman Sisters’, referring to the global financial services firm Lehman Brothers which crashed in 2008.
Those who know Reeves talk of her non-tribal, no-nonsense approach – which Labour hopes will speak, in spades, to voters.
Lord O’Neill of Gatley, the former Conservative Treasury Minister who has worked with her, said recently: ‘She seems really normal, which is quite unusual in politics.’
Then eyebrows were really raised yesterday when former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke praised her as a ‘reassuring and responsible’ figure’. Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, had already endorsed her.
Little wonder Tory MPs are said to be scared of Reeves. A time might come, indeed, when they fear her as much as they did Mrs Thatcher.
The Women Who Made Modern Economics by Rachel Reeves is published by Basic Books
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