Monday 20 January 2020

Fratboy cabinet proves you need XY factor to win

UK Home Secretary Theresa May and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson meet a neighbourhood policing team during a visit to Clapham, south west London, yesterday
UK Home Secretary Theresa May and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson meet a neighbourhood policing team during a visit to Clapham, south west London, yesterday

As the Cameron coalition held its first cabinet meeting yesterday, the background hubbub had the baritone buzz of a rugby club changing room. The atmosphere, William Hague reported, was "extremely friendly and extremely positive". And, he might have added, extremely male.

This was, supposedly, the 'Mumsnet' election, in which each 'Sure Start' mum and middle-class 'Bodenista' was assured that policy was being formulated to her agenda. But the "new politics" born of this campaign was christened by a cabinet including just four women.

Reports of the "surprise" appointment of Theresa May to the Home Office paid much reference to her trademark leopardskin kitten heels. While her illustrious predecessor Sir Robert Peel escaped accusations of flighty footwear, he would have found the complexion of government otherwise not much changed in two centuries.

David Cameron, the youngest PM since Lord Liverpool, appears little keener on promoting women. Leaving aside the euphoria over Blair's 'babes', each new parliament provokes a lament on gender balance. But this time the absence of women has seemed almost eerie.

They were almost invisible in the campaign frontline, unheard in the great policy debates and, in the main, ignored when the top jobs were being handed out. The paltry rise of around a dozen new women MPs leaves Britain ranked at joint 52nd in the world for government balance, with Labour and the Lib Dems shedding much of their female talent.

The tableau of Dave and Nick larking in the rose garden of No 10 is a promise that the right school and university, a palatable public manner and the xy chromosome remain the vital determinants of power.

But does it matter? "No," says the departing maverick Tory MP Ann Widdecombe. "I'm relieved they're not going for tokenism. Thank God there's no nonsense about it being evenly balanced." But even Widdecombe expresses surprise at one omission: there is no Lib Dem woman at the top table.

Nick Clegg admitted last year that his party was "woefully unrepresentative of modern Britain". And yet he fielded relatively few women at this election and chose a team of white, middle-class men to broker the coalition. Now he will have to answer to those who did make it through, including Lynne Featherstone, his former equalities spokeswoman.

Labour, reeling from defeat, also shows signs of incubating a fratboy culture. Although Harriet Harman stays, for now at least, as deputy, none of the likely leadership contenders is a woman, to the disgust of one Labour backbencher. "Yvette Cooper is wonderful," she says. "Yvette walks on water. Yet who's going for the leadership? Her husband, Ed Balls."

In a rare, three-woman fight, in Islington South and Finsbury, Emily Thornberry was returned for Labour, beating Lib Dem Bridget Fox, and Tory Antonia Cox. Despite more family-friendly hours, Thornberry says being an MP remains a punishing job. "We still sit until 10pm on Mondays and Tuesdays. Constituents want you to be their local champion, but they also want you to be on 'Question Time'. The media want your hinterland, and it's hard to have stories about your family in newspapers."

Ordinary women are repelled, meanwhile, when their glimpse of politics is a Stepford parade of male politicians with glamorous wives in tow.

Not every man to grace the ConDem cabinet is an amalgam of Pitt the Younger and Russell Crowe. But even those of modest talent and no fanzine appeal are still more likely to escape professional and personal criticism than women.

Obviously men can represent women's interests. But could the Lib Dems really understand the public mood on child tax credits when not one of their female MPs had school-age children?

If faith in politics is ever to be restored, parties must feel the heartbeat of the country.

Strip out the novelty, and the images of this week -- not a political love story but an exercise in narcissm -- will have no traction at the school gate or the supermarket checkout or the polling booth. The task, for all parties, is to rebuild the fractured compact between the citizen and the state. And they will never do it without women. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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