Pictures: Ben Quinton
It’s a dull grey Monday in Westminster, but Angela Rayner is bursting with energy.
You’d never guess that Labour’s bouncy deputy leader had spent the previous day in A&E with her disabled son, or that this health scare follows a gruelling few months for Rayner herself.
Last month, she took bereavement leave from Westminster. As she reveals to Grazia, she was privately struggling with the loss of the woman she calls her ‘adoptive mum’, who took a 20-year-old Rayner under her wing after a difficult childhood caring for her own mother, who suffered from bipolar.
‘Throughout my career she’s been there to guide me and support me, so she was like my real mum in that respect – someone who loves you unconditionally, who’s there [for you],’ she says over Zoom from her parliamentary office. ‘I’ve always been my mum’s carer so I’ve always looked after myself. I’ve never felt that other people had the responsibility to look after me. And then, when I met my adoptive mum, as I call her – she was everything to me.’
Rayner, who at 41 has three children as well as a four-year-old granddaughter, is close to her biological mother and has stressed she doesn’t blame her for struggling to cope. But for anyone with a complicated family background, she points out, loss can be hard to explain to strangers. ‘That’s the thing in bereavement, people’s relationships are so complex. Who is your close family? To a lot of people that’s your mum, your dad, your son, your daughter – well, it’s not like that for a lot of people.’ Her message on the funeral flowers was ‘you were the mum I chose’.
With hindsight, Rayner says, she’d been in what she calls a ‘heightened emotional state’ for a while. Having already lost her uncle and aunt to Covid, she was witnessing growing post-pandemic hardship in her Ashton-under-Lyme constituency, as well as dealing with desperate people trying to get relatives out of Afghanistan after it fell to the Taliban. ‘So many harrowing stories of people going through so much that, emotionally, I just felt like despair.’ Then, at a difficult time professionally, the person she’d naturally have leaned on was dying.
Acknowledging that she needed time off wasn’t easy. ‘I realised that there comes a point where you’ve got to do what you’re telling other people to do; I had to lead by example. I needed that time to sort of go through my own emotions and accept that you’re a human being, you’re a normal average person who’s gone through a very difficult period,’ she says.
‘I didn’t want to show myself as weak but it wasn’t weak, I realised it was an incredibly strong thing to do. But it did feel like I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t know how people would [react]. Leaders are supposed to be so strong that we can get through anything.’ Rayner, whose Shadow Cabinet brief includes policy on work, says it’s taught her that people in all walks of life ‘need to be able to have bereavement leave’.
During that time off she also publicly apologised for calling Tories ‘homophobic, racist, misogynistic scum’ at Labour’s party conference this autumn, words that returned to haunt her following the killing of the Conservative MP David Amess, which prompted wider debate about abusive language in politics. Having received serious death threats herself, she says she felt genuinely ‘mortified’ by the idea she might have unwittingly contributed to a hostile climate. ‘I felt it was right for me to acknowledge that and also for others to reflect as well, because a lot of the time we don’t recognise [the risks] necessarily, because it’s not us advocating extreme behaviour.’ Once again, she says, it’s about needing to ‘show some leadership’.
Rayner uses the L-word a lot, which may not go unnoticed in the office of Labour’s own leader, Keir Starmer. Rumoured tensions between them have been the talk of Westminster but, while she hasn’t bought him a Christmas present – ‘it’s a rule in our house, we don’t buy for the adults!’ – she insists their relationship is good. ‘I’m always trying to bring him out of his shell a bit more because, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a bit more... spicy,’ she says, giggling. ‘But Keir is just such a genuine, decent guy. He’s the person that you definitely want in control of your schools, your hospitals and your economy because he wouldn’t wing it. Boris Johnson wings it. Keir Starmer would never wing it.’
So if they had a free afternoon to hang out, where would she take him? ‘I’d probably take him to the pub. That’s what I like to do in a free afternoon, nothing too strenuous. I’m not one for exercise to be honest... I love a good Sunday lunch.’
He has, she says, already taken her to his London local for ‘a white wine and I even made him buy me some little pork scratchings’, although he’s vegetarian.
Theirs is an unlikely double act but, lately, it’s seemingly got results, with Labour leading in the polls and Boris Johnson under fire on issues from social care to sleaze. ‘I think what’s changed is now [Johnson’s] in a position where he can’t run and hide. Give him a stage and a microphone and he’ll tap-dance and entertain you, but the detail has never been Boris’s fine point,’ says Rayner, who stood in for a Covid-positive Starmer at Prime Minister’s questions recently and found Johnson surprisingly easily wrongfooted. ‘He just doesn’t know how to think on his feet on the issues, because he’s got no grasp of them. So if you’re a person who has a little bit of knowledge about what’s going on in the world you’re one step ahead of him.’
Former Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings tweeted recently that Labour needed a female leader because Johnson ‘can’t take women seriously’. Does he struggle with female opponents? ‘I don’t know if it’s because of the woman or the Northern, but those two elements do often give me an upper hand in Parliament because a lot of people there have come from a different background to mine.’
That background leaves its mark in unexpected ways, including her famous love of shoes – a legacy, she says, of growing up poor. ‘My school shoes were steel toecaps because my nana said they’d last longer, and I got absolutely caned for it when I was at school. My hair was thick and wiry and ginger and my mum didn’t brush it, because my mum wouldn’t be up because she was depressed, so I’d just tie my hair back and look really straggly,’ she remembers.
‘If you’ve grown up not having much, when you have it you value it. Even now, when I get something brand new, and take it out of a packet, it makes me feel all warm inside, because it just took so long for me to be able to have that.’ Like many female MPs, she’s irritated by critics who focus on her clothes rather than what she says, but refuses to let it change her. ‘It’s frustrating but this is why I continue to be different, because I think if I didn’t I’m letting down a lot of young girls who need to know you don’t need to look a certain way. You are unique, there’s only one of you ever on the planet; you look how you want to look.’
As she gets older, Rayner says she’s more inclined to call out the everyday sexism and harassment women in politics still encounter – highlighted recently when Tory MP Caroline Nokes accused the PM’s father Stanley Johnson of smacking her bottom at a party. (He has said he has ‘no recollection’ of Nokes).
‘Sometimes, you go into a room and [people] will talk to my special advisers because they’re male, and I’m like, “Er, I’m here!” They don’t do it deliberately, it’s just like unconscious bias,’ says Rayner. ‘What Caroline Nokes said about what happened with Stanley is on a different level – every man should know that it’s completely unacceptable. But I’d say that on a daily basis women face some level of misogyny or discrimination and I think there has to be a cultural shift.’
That includes, she says, what’s often called ‘just banter’. ‘Many women get to that point where they [feel they] have to go with the banter and say it’s funny, or else you’re a bit stuck up or – what was it I was told once? “You’re frigid.” I was like, “What? Because I don’t want you to hit on me? No mate, I’m at work and I’m trying to do my job.”’
She was much younger then, she explains, working as a home carer. ‘Now I wouldn’t accept it. I’m a 41-year-old grandma and I wouldn’t have it. I am a bit more of a feminist now. I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to have to put up with some of the stuff I did when I was a bit younger.’ Mess with Rayner, it seems, at your peril.
Hair and Make-up: Carolyn Wren at Untitled Artists. Styling: Julia Harvey