‘Basic Instinct’ slur against female lawmaker turns spotlight on British sexism

A woman looks to her upper right
Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of Britain’s opposition Labor Party, listens to a speech by party leader Keir Starmer in September.
(Alastair Grant / Associated Press)

Politicians of all political parties and genders called Monday for action to tackle misogyny after a newspaper ran a story accusing the deputy opposition leader of trying to “distract” Prime Minister Boris Johnson during debates by crossing and uncrossing her legs.

The Mail on Sunday tabloid quoted an anonymous Conservative Party lawmaker as saying that Labor Party deputy leader Angela Rayner tried to throw Johnson “off his stride” as she sat across from him in the House of Commons. The article likened it to a notorious scene in the 1992 thriller “Basic Instinct” in which Sharon Stone is interrogated by police.

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 and left school when she was 16, makes a sharp contrast to Johnson, who was educated at the elite private school Eton and at Oxford University. Johnson has sometimes struggled to parry her attacks during debates.

The British prime minister is famous for his ability to skate away from scandals large and small. But this one, over pandemic gatherings, might stick.

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 that 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 the British Parliament, women make up 34% of the 650 legislators in the House of Commons. Long known for its boozy, macho atmosphere, the chamber is now a more diverse place. The country has also had two female prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

The British leader has been faulted for being too slow to aid Ukrainian refugees and impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

But some say change in the political environment has not gone far enough. Many female politicians said the article was only an extreme example of the sexism they encounter daily.

“I hope that some good can come out of this awful article in the Mail on Sunday, and that is that people see what it is like in Parliament and people call out this misogyny and sexism for what it is, and that we get some change because Angela and no other MP should have to put up with this sort of rubbish,” said Labor legislator Rachel Reeves.

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 Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle to censure Glen Owen, the journalist who wrote the article.

Hoyle said he had summoned the tabloid’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.