Can Boris Johnson Solve His ‘Women Problem’ With Cabinet Promotions?

More female faces among senior medics than among politicians.

You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.

Someone in No.10 had clearly had a brainwave. After renewed criticism about this government’s gender balance, two thirds of the three people chosen for the Downing Street media briefing were actually women on Monday evening.

You could even hear the clunking gears of the presentational thought process: 66.5% is way over the 51% of the population, so take that, feminists. Boris has a ‘women problem’? Forgeddabahtit.

Unfortunately, the real problem was that the only politician present was again a man (Matt Hancock), while the two female speakers were senior NHS figures (Jenny Harries and Susan Hopkins). Harries and Hopkins are of course experts in their fields, but as Hancock did his thing centre stage, there was an unavoidable feeling that the women were backing singers to his lead performance.

The fact remains that after more than 10 months of No.10 briefings, women have led a handful of them. To be precise, Priti Patel has led a handful of them (I think it’s five in total, and two of those were in recent weeks, after months of Downing Street fearing she would be asked about bullying). International trade secretary Liz Truss and work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey have led exactly zero press briefings over the past year.

“You have to promote on merit,” Margaret Thatcher told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour back in 1993, after she was challenged on the fact that in her 11 years in No.10 she promoted just one woman to Cabinet (Janet Young, to Lords leader). In 2021, the problem is not a lack of merit but of numbers in posts ready for the step up.

On Women’s Hour on Monday, Coffey tried to explain away the low numbers of female faces at the lead lectern by pointing out that it was natural that the PM, the health secretary and chancellor would dominate the proceedings as they were most closely involved in the day-to-day pandemic response.

Yet that explanation only really served to make things worse, in that this strange set of affairs is the sheer lack of women in senior Cabinet posts and in the Cabinet as a whole. Just three out of 17 secretaries of state are women (Lords leader Nathalie Evans and party co-chairman Amanda Milling do not run departments of their own): Truss, Coffey and Patel.

The dearth of senior women was highlighted by the Sunday Times this weekend, when it crunched the numbers and found that women had appeared on the Sunday politics shows (Marr and Ridge) just once since the pandemic started. Perhaps stung by the revelation, government sources told the Daily Mail today that Johnson was set to promote a raft of women in his next reshuffle due in June, after the local elections.‌

Truss, who has built up a strong following among party activists, is tipped for a more senior job and I’d personally suspect she’s going to replace Gavin Williamson as education secretary when he is finally forced out. Truss, a comp educated former education minister, would be a natural fit for the role. Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield rightly suggested today that every No.10 press briefing should have statistics on schools as well as health. It’s possible we could be seeing Truss at that lectern a lot.

Yet the fact that Truss was among the few women tipped for further Cabinet promotion was another indictment of how far the PM has to go. Others names mentioned included Kemi Badenoch, Lucy Frazer, Gillian Keegan and Victoria Atkins. All are undoubted rising stars, and will probably move up the ranks, but only Frazer is at the minister of state level normally considered the prerequisite for Cabinet.‌

As well as Truss, Anne-Marie Trevelyan (who is only out of the Cabinet because her DfID role was abolished by the merger with the FCO) is another favourite to the top table. Yet among other ministers of state level there is a small pool: Michelle Donelan, Caroline Dineage, Chloe Smith, Nadine Dorries, Helen Whately, Penny Mordaunt and Frazer, compared to three times as many men at the same rank.

When the lack of senior women was put to No.10 in our Lobby briefing on Monday, the PM’s spokesman said the PM was “proud of the contribution of female colleagues” in the coronavirus pandemic response. “You had Kate Bingham leading the most diverse [no pun intended] vaccine supply, the Home Secretary leading on enforcement issues, you’ve seen Dido Harding lead on test and trace..But the PM, also recognises, there is a need for government to do more.”

You can say that again. Bingham and Harding are, in case you missed it, not ministers (though given the latter is a peer it’s baffling why she has the power without the political accountability). It reminds me of when No.10 response to criticism about Johnson’s lack of senior women in Cabinet by pointing to the fact that his policy unit chief is Munira Mirza. Well, yeah, but she ain’t elected.

Coffey herself tried this defence today when she told Women’s Hour: “I know the prime minister is very conscious of the fact that more than half the electorate are women. He’s appointed his first press secretary...Allegra Stratton who was an excellent professional has got that job obviously entirely on merit, but I’m sure will be a familiar face, representing the government.”‌

It’s true that if the No.10 televised briefings switch to Stratton later this year, she would become the most famous female face of the government. But again, that may only serve to show the absence of the women around the Cabinet table. Or as Emma Barnett pointed out, there is a big difference between PR and running a Whitehall department.

The growing importance of education (where Truss could do what Williamson should have been doing) and international trade post-Brexit (where Trevelyan could replace Truss) could result in more women than ever leading the No.10 briefings, if they continue this summer.

I’ve written before that it’s strange that Coffey herself has not led a No.10 briefing, given how important the welfare safety net has been and will be. She told Barnett: “You may well be seeing more of me, because right now, let’s not pretend, unemployment is still rising.”

That it may take rising joblessness for a female minister to finally get a place at that Downing St lectern is itself perhaps another indictment of just how Johnson has handled both the pandemic and his government.


What's Hot