Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will succeed Theresa May to become our next PM on 23 July. But what does this mean for women? Journalist Eve Livingston breaks down the policies of both.
Despite a promising number of women entering the fray when a leadership election was announced back in May, our next Prime Minister will be a man.
Voted for by Conservative party members, either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will succeed Theresa May and inherit a to-do list dominated by EU negotiations and Irish backstops when they take up position at the end of the month. But a Prime Minister is not just for Brexit, and the positions and actions of PM Hunt or Johnson will have an impact on the lives of women across the country.
So where do they stand on abortion, maternity leave, violence against women and other key issues? We break it down, below.
A remain voter during the 2016 referendum, Hunt now says he would back Leave and has laid out his own alternative deal for exiting the EU. His priority is to change or replace the controversial Irish backstop – a sort of safety net to ensure the Irish border remains open regardless of negotiation outcomes – which has so far stopped a withdrawal agreement from passing through Parliament. In order to do this, he has pledged to bring together a new negotiating team and hasn’t ruled out extending the 31 October deadline if negotiations are close to completion.
Hunt has said he would prefer a no-deal Brexit to no Brexit at all, but has pledged to bring preparations from his first day in office, including setting up a no-deal cabinet taskforce and groups to look at budget, logistics and relief in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
A leading figure in the Leave campaign, Johnson once famously wrote two versions of his Telegraph column while deciding which side to back in the EU referendum, something which his critics say shows a lack of principle and ideology. Since pinning his colours to the Leave side, though, he has been one of its leading campaigners, even resigning his role as Foreign Secretary when it seemed like Theresa May might be negotiating a “softer” Brexit.
When it comes to how he’d handle the Brexit situation as Prime Minister, Johnson has emphasised that Britain should leave the EU by 31 October, deal or no-deal. Like Hunt, he hopes to negotiate a new deal which changes or replaces the Irish backstop – but he has taken a more aggressive stance on negotiations, threatening to withhold the £39 billion divorce bill until a new deal is agreed.
Jeremy Hunt caused controversy during the race when he was challenged by Sky’s Sophy Ridge on his previous assertion that abortion should only be available up to 12 weeks after conception – half the current legal limit of 24 weeks. Hunt said his view hadn’t changed but later clarified that he wouldn’t seek to bring about any legal changes as Prime Minister. His comments were still widely criticised by female MPs, including Labour’s Jess Phillips, who tweeted “Did this one say he was a feminist?….how about we base this stuff on evidence and science and keep what you think is best based on no experience out of this.”
On the issue of intervening to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, which has the strictest abortion laws in Europe, Hunt supported the move to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland.
Unlike Hunt, Boris Johnson hasn’t engaged publicly in the debate around abortion rights. He has, however, abstained on every related vote in Parliament since 2007, so it’s fair to say he’s not exactly a vocal pro-choice ally.
Unlike Hunt, Johnson stated that abortion rights in Northern Ireland were a matter for Stormont and ruled out any intervention if he were to become Prime Minister.
Women in work
Responding to a letter from the Conservative Women in Parliament Group (CWIPG), Hunt last month laid out expansive plans for tackling discrimination against women in the workplace. On maternity rights, he pledged to increase flexibility for mothers returning to work by encouraging job-sharing arrangements and guaranteeing flexible working. He also wants to increase paternity leave, promote the uptake of shared parental leave, and take measures to ensure that women cannot be made redundant while on maternity leave.
On pay inequality he is slightly vaguer, promising to “consult on” the possibility of paid leave for carers and to “review enforcement of equal pay legislation”. Despite promising pledges, though, Hunt’s record as Health Secretary includes the implementation of a new contract for junior doctors which was widely criticised as enshrining a gender pay gap.
Johnson’s response to the CWIPG is briefer than Hunt’s and doesn’t make any solid policy commitments. Instead, he states that “where there are barriers – be they in pay, discrimination, against women on maternity leave, or the hidden inequalities of the health system – my government will call them out and do something about them”.
His record on women’s rights in the workplace is similarly light-touch, with few positions taken publicly on issues of pay and discrimination. When he did speak out on the gender pay gap during his time as London Mayor, it was to blame immigration for its persistence (a view not backed up by evidence or experts). He was also accused of breaching sex discrimination laws when he used his Telegraph column to state: “It is a fact that – on the whole – men and women express emotion differently … it should not be an offence to say that”.
Violence against women
As part of his response to the CWIPG, Hunt pledges to bring forward a “package of measures” around controversial non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as recommended by the Women and Equalities Committee, and to introduce new duties on employers to prevent harassment, as well as clarifying laws relating to third party harassment. These are all policy proposals which will be especially welcome in the post #MeToo climate. However, Hunt’s potential hypocrisy on these issues was called out recently when he failed to speak out against his Junior Minister Mark Field amidst allegations that he physically assaulted a female Greenpeace protester at a dinner event.
Johnson hasn’t made any policy pledges relating to violence against women as part of this election (at the time of writing, he was yet to respond to an open letter from the End Violence Against Women coalition asking him to support four specific commitments, while Hunt had responded to pledge his commitment to the cause).
In his previous roles, though, Johnson has a mixed record when it comes to violence against women. As London Mayor, he was widely praised for increasing the provision of rape crisis centres – but he also cut roles and budget from the London Domestic Violence Strategy Team. As Foreign Secretary, he took part in campaigns against Female Genital Mutilation, earning the backing of anti-FGM campaigner Nimco Ali – but he also infamously compared veiled Muslim women to letterboxes, resulting in a spike in hate crimes against them according to anti-Islamophobia charity, Tell MAMA.
And of course Johnson’s personal life has come under increased scrutiny during the race, following reports that police were called to his home when neighbours heard an altercation involving him and his partner Carrie Symonds. The police later issued a statement saying that “there were no offences or concerns apparent to the officers and there was no cause for police action”, but a friend of Johnson’s ex-wife has since alleged that she was threatened by him in 1989.
With landmark legislation such as the new Domestic Abuse Bill still to be brought forward in a future Parliament, many women will have concerns about the priority it is given under the leadership of Johnson, given his own personal issues, or Hunt, who called on his rival to “man up” when he failed to face public scrutiny about the incident.
NHS and social care
Despite his title as the longest-serving Health Secretary in British history, Hunt’s time in the role was tempestuous. As well as introducing a series of austerity measures including a cap on NHS pay, Hunt was blamed for missed targets across the NHS and large-scale junior doctor strikes that saw two days of emergency care not provided for – the first time in NHS history.
If elected as Prime Minister, he has said that he would increase funding for social care and introduce a pension-style insurance system to fund it. He has also put an emphasis on mental health, pledging to introduce mental health support in every school and to crack down on social media companies that don’t meet regulations.
Johnson’s most famous association with the NHS is probably the infamous Brexit bus, on which it was suggested that money paid to the European Union was being taken from potential NHS funding. While he’s remained quiet about that particular statement, he has ruled out a paid-for NHS and said that it would remain free at the point of use under his leadership. He has also supported an increased budget for social care, but hasn’t laid out how he would fund this or made any solid commitments around the provision of care.
Johnson is also backed by the current Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who announced that Johnson would oversee a pay rise for the public sector including NHS workers – but Johnson himself has refused to commit to such a pledge when asked by reporters.
Responding to the CWIPG’s letter to candidates, Hunt voiced his support for the Conservative goal of 50% women on candidate lists for Westminster elections and said he supported extending it to council candidates (although he has been careful to use the word ‘target’, remaining non-committal on the issue of quotas or all-women shortlists).
He also pledges to ensure a greater number of women in the Cabinet and addresses the need to be tougher on online abuse and discrimination affecting women.
Johnson’s response states that he similarly agrees with the 50% aspiration and calls for it to be extended across all levels of the party, though he doesn’t go into detail about how this might be realised.
His own record, too, provides little evidence of a commitment to increased representation; as Mayor, he cut the role of Women’s Advisor from his team and was accused of disrespectful and patronising behaviour towards female members of the London Assembly. More recently he was admonished by the Speaker for referring to Emily Thornberry by her husband’s name instead of her own, and his election campaign team has been criticised for being almost entirely run by men.
What does it all mean?
Boris Johnson is still the runaway favourite to be declared Prime Minister on 23 July but the fact remains that whoever takes on the top job has a lot of questions to answer about their commitment to the country’s women and their priorities. From indifference on abortion to concerning claims about personal behaviour, both Johnson and Hunt are yet to fully prove themselves as the feminists they both proclaim to be.
Life for women will certainly change amidst the tumult of Brexit and the changing of the guards at number 10. It’s vital that we keep up the pressure to ensure it’s for the better.
Information correct at time of publishing on 10 July