POLITICS
24/02/2015 09:59 GMT | Updated 25/02/2015 08:59 GMT

Lib Dem Minister Jo Swinson Blasts 'Sexist' Daily Mail Attack On Pregnant Labour MP Rachel Reeves

Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Jo Swinson MP during day three of Liberal Democrat autumn conference at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow, Scotland.

A Lib Dem minister has condemned The Daily Mail's "staggeringly sexist" attack on pregnant Labour frontbencher Rachel Reeves, which has dismissing her plan to go on maternity leave in the first weeks of a prospective Miliband government as "anything but feminist".

Business Minister Jo Swinson, who went on maternity leave herself last year, acidly summarised the newspaper's argument on Twitter as "new mums can't be cabinet ministers but fine for new dads".

The row comes after Reeves, Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary, told The Telegraph that one of her first actions after a Labour victory in May would be to scrap the "bedroom tax", go on maternity leave in June and then be back to work from September.

In response, the Mail featured an opinion piece written by academic Belinda Brown, which asked: "Can you imagine the state of Works and Pensions, the department currently run by Iain Duncan Smith, if it is handed to a woman with a small child under each arm?"

rachel reeves Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves

Brown, an honorary research associate at University College London whose listed academic interests include "children's activities" and "exploring car use", went on: "Ms Reeves, who is married to Gordon Brown’s former speechwriter Nicholas Joicey, is spurning a fantastic chance to make a statement that would help women everywhere — being a mother is a full-time job, and it matters. It’s important.

"Instead, she is treating motherhood as a part-time obligation, almost a hobby. She is making her views very plain: the workplace matters most. It is far more important to her than children and family.

"That stance does a terrible disservice to ordinary women. And I believe it disqualifies Rachel Reeves, who is tipped as a future Labour leader, from ever making important policy decisions affecting women."

"As the mother of a grown-up son and an eight-year-old, who has gladly made many sacrifices for my own children, I simply cannot understand Ms Reeves’s attitude — and I don’t think most women understand it either."

Brown rounds off: "Being able to have children should be a tremendous privilege for women, and we should be prepared to make sacrifices for it — yet feminism treats it as some kind of terrible burden or disadvantage, an obstacle that has to be smoothed away.

"If we peak a little later in our careers surely that is a compromise we should be happy to make."

The Mail isn't the only critic of Reeves' maternity leave plan. Andrew Rosindell, a Tory MP, told the newspaper on Monday: "I don’t want to say someone who is having a baby is not eligible to be a Cabinet minister, but I certainly think perhaps the demands of that particular job will require someone to give it their full attention.

"I don’t expect Rachel Reeves to be in the Cabinet after the election because I expect the Conservatives to win, but clearly people need to be put in the positions they can handle."

andrew rosindell Tory MP Andrew Rosindell

The Tory backbencher's comments were dismissed by David Cameron's spokesman, who said: "It is entirely a matter for individual families to take decisions that they think are right for them. It would be the government's job to support them in those decisions they take."

In a statement to HuffPost UK, Lib Dem business minister Jo Swinson said: "The suggestion that a woman should be turned down for a job because she is pregnant is clearly outrageous. That kind of discrimination would be illegal under employment law, and is an appalling attack on the right of pregnant women to take on high profile leadership roles in government or business.

"It echoes the outdated sexist view that women can’t be good mothers and also good at their jobs. Liberal Democrats in Government have done lots to help working parents, including extending free childcare and introducing shared parental leave, so couples can better make choices that suits them after they have their baby.

"Clearly maternity or paternity cover arrangements need to be put in place for Ministers, that’s important but far from impossible. The bigger issue is that people – including apparently Tory MPs – so frequently make assumptions about what mums can do, in a way that rarely happens with dads.

"It just goes to show that, if in power on their own, the Tories would revert to type and risk the good work we have done in Coalition."

Reeves also fought back against Rosindell, arguing in a message on Twitter that his comments were another sign of the Conservatives' "women problem".

Read more on General Election 2015

This isn't the first time Tory politicians have embarrassed themselves by talking about Rachel Reeves, after cabinet minister Philip Hammond accidentally mistook Labour MP Liz Kendall for her live on Question Time last February. More than once.

"I know we all look the same," Kendall told Hammond the first time he made the gaffe. The shadow health minister took it in good humour and assured host David Dimbleby that she was "most flattered" to be compared to Reeves.