28/10/2020 20:04 GMT | Updated 29/10/2020 11:05 GMT

Boris Johnson Has A Woman Problem. When Will He Sort It Out?

The PM's defenders said he was a feminist who was about "deeds not words" – so why is his government so behind?

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Before realising his dream to enter Downing Street as “world king”, Boris Johnson did little to endear himself to women. 

Students of his early work will recall that Spectator article in which the PM, then a journalist, berated “uppity and irresponsible” single mothers for having children “independently of men”. 

His juvenile dismissal of David Cameron as a “girly swot” and claims “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts” also rather suggest he doesn’t take women seriously. 

Before the election, Johnson’s allies played all this down as jokes, insisting he “cares a great deal about women and girls” and should be measured by his “deeds not words”. 

Fast-forward to 2020 and a pandemic which is ballooning existing inequalities and politicians of all hues are feeling a bit less forgiving. 

One of his defenders back in 2019 was Baroness Nicky Morgan, the Tories’ former culture secretary.

She took the government to task on Wednesday over its failure to protect women against those who threaten to share intimate images online – also known as “revenge porn”.

Morgan wanted to know why the government had not sped up legislating against such threats using coercive control clauses in the Domestic Abuse Bill. 

Especially, she said, as one in seven young women were being targeted.

She said: “We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are increasingly using technology and the internet to abuse and control their partners/ex-partners.” 

The government is scrutinising a Law Commission review on the subject, said minister Baroness Jane Scott, saying the government will “look very carefully” at amendments. 

But crossbench peer Lord Simon Russell rather hit the nail on the head when he rose to back up Morgan. 

Pointing out revenge porn threats were “affecting a lot of women right now this minute”, he added “Scotland was leading the way”, with Holyrood already having legislated. 

Whatever the government’s bandwidth for policy beyond Covid, Johnson cannot claim to be unaware of the spike in domestic abuse during the pandemic. 

Refuge said in June that calls to its hotline spiked by 80% and victims’ commissioner Vera Baird was among those sounding the alarm over a tsunami of abuse masked by coronavirus restrictions.

It is also not the first time the government has fallen short on coming up with the “deeds” this parliament, either. 

It was Labour MP Harriet Harman and Tory backbenchers such as Laura Farris and Mark Garnier who drummed up support to outlaw the so-called “rough sex defence”, which was increasingly being used to deny families justice. 

More than a month after the Law Commission recommended misogyny be treated as a hate crime (a campaign led by Labour’s Stella Creasy and several charities) the government has failed to act. 

Numerous studies have shown women are facing devastating consequences during the pandemic. Women are shouldering a greater share of childcare responsibilities, are more likely to lose their job, experience depression and other mental health problems, and are more likely to experience food insecurity. 

Parliament has been preoccupied with divisive battles over local lockdowns and a toxic debate over free school meals and whether “chaotic parents” (copyright, Tory MP John Penrose, on this occasion) are to blame for holiday hunger. 

So why does Johnson seem to have a tin ear over how Covid is affecting women? 

Tory MP Caroline Nokes was not the first to point out that the Brexiteer-heavy cabinet is “filled with men”, and Johnson has himself hinted a reshuffle could be on the cards. 

Westminster insiders say Liz Truss’ dual role of international trade secretary and women and equalities minister shows Johnson’s lack of commitment to helping women. 

“You aren’t exactly leaning in if you’re striking trade deals in Japan,” said one. 

But as an unemployment crisis looms, many fear that the hard yards of the Covid crisis are yet to come, and if Johnson is to make good on his promises to “unite and level up”, he can’t ignore women any longer. 

  • The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
  • In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
  • Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321