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Nicholas Leonard: Women lead way as men occupy spotlight for wrong reasons

France's economics minister Christine Lagarde is favourite to take the top job at the IMF. Reuters/Aly song

There is a massive sense of relief and satisfaction in Downing Street at the palpable success of the queen's visit to Ireland. While the arrival of President Barack Obama will now capture the media headlines, both the queen herself and the British prime minister, David Cameron, have gained political and personal brownie points on a scale that neither could reasonably have expected.

One of the first consequences of this is a vivid awareness in Whitehall of the ability of the queen, even at the age of 85, to play a proactive role in internationally complex situations.

A cartoon in 'The Times' even showed the royal couple descending on parachutes into war-torn Libya with the queen muttering to her ashen-faced husband, "Oh do stop your blasted moaning, Philip -- one has to try".

When the US business magazine 'Forbes' drew up its list of the most powerful women in the world a few months ago, the queen was ranked 41st. Two places below her was the French economics minister, Christine Lagarde. (Michelle Obama was number one).

As recently as last Thursday, Lagarde was among the 20/1 outsiders to succeed the hapless Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the International Monetary Fund. But over the weekend she became the even money favourite after receiving powerful official backing from the chancellor, George Osborne.

Both Osborne and Cameron are delighted to have found a plausible candidate they can support after publicly humiliating Gordon Brown by refusing to endorse his semi-official campaign to get the job.

Brown has the brains and the commitment to make a go of running the IMF but, as was shown during his years as chancellor and prime minister, he is useless at managing people and dangerously addicted to fostering cliques and infighting.

Lagarde is every bit as intelligent as Brown but her career suggests she has the qualities he lacks of leadership and managerial skill. She was chairman of the global executive committee of one of America's biggest law firms (Baker & McKenzie) and, in what seems almost like a parody of an entry in the 'perfect cv', she was once a member of the French national synchronised swimming team.

The ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles knew a thing or two about human relationships. He was the author of Oedipus Rex, the play about a man who killed his father and married his mother.

Towards the end of his life, Sophocles was asked whether he regretted the disappearance of his enthusiasm for sex as he grew older. "On the contrary," he is reputed to have replied, "it is like being unchained from a lunatic."

Strauss-Kahn is not the only prominent politician who is still entangled in those chains. The energy minister, Chris Huhne, has become embroiled in a vicious and damaging public battle with his estranged wife over claims that she accepted penalty points on her driving licence to protect him from losing his.

The episode took place back in March 2003, just a week before the invasion of Iraq, and the police are now investigating. Huhne, an ambitious Liberal Democrat who was poised to challenge Nick Clegg for the leadership of the party, now has his career at stake. Not only is the prolonged media focus on his private life undermining his image, but he is also facing awkward questions about whether he exceeded the legal limits on expenditure during the general election campaign.

Despite the public embarrassments, however, Huhne will probably be able to stay in the cabinet provided, of course, he is not eventually found guilty of any offences. Cameron hates firing ministers and has resisted pressure to get rid of several who, under Blair or Brown, would have been swiftly thrown out to preserve the opinion poll ratings of the Labour Party.

As a result, there are now more than half a dozen ministers who owe their continuing careers to Cameron's tolerance. Among them are: the business minister, Vince Cable, who revealed his hatred of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch in a secretly taped interview; the defence minister, Liam Fox, who has taken to leaking letters to the newspapers to try to get Cameron to shift money from international aid to Britain's armed forces; and, most recently, the justice minister, Kenneth Clarke, who talked himself into serious political trouble on a radio phone-in by appearing to dismiss some rapes as almost insignificant events.

Clarke is by far the oldest and most experienced cabinet minister but he has always revelled in political incorrectness, famously moving from being the health minister to the deputy chairmanship of a large cigarette company.

On this occasion, his notorious ability to shoot from the lip let him down badly. Not only did he get the details of the law on rape completely wrong, but he casually admitted that he had not discussed his proposed reforms of the law with any women who have been raped because he hadn't "met one recently".

Irish Independent