Visible Women

Was Theresa May’s reshuffle really good for women?

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Moya Crockett
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There are more women in government after the PM’s reshuffle – but the final line-up was something of a damp squib.

Theresa May completed her latest reshuffle on Tuesday evening, and – on the surface, at least – things seemed to have improved slightly in terms of female representation in politics. There are now eight new women in government, including two from ethnic minority backgrounds, and one additional woman minister in the cabinet.

In the build-up to the reshuffle, much was made of the fact that the Prime Minister was keen to diversify the face of the Conservative Party. She clearly thinks she’s succeeded: in a statement released on Tuesday night, May said that the government now “looks more like the country it serves”, and will allow “a new generation of gifted ministers to set up and make life better for people”.

But has the reshuffle really been that great for women? Let’s take a look at the key points. 

The numbers 

From L-R: MPs Chloe Smith, Nusrat Ghani, Harriett Baldwin and Suella Fernandes have all received promotions in May’s reshuffle.

On the basis of female representation alone, May has improved matters by promoting five women who previously worked in junior government roles to ministerial positions.

Caroline Dinenage is now Jeremy Hunt’s deputy at the new Department of Health and Social Care. Margot James has been made minister of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Harriett Baldwin is the new minister of state at the Foreign Office and Department for International Development.

Heather Wheeler has been promoted to parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and Chloe Smith is now parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet Office.

Pale and stale? Most of the top positions in May’s cabinet are still held by white men. From L-R: Chancellor Philip Hammond; Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson; Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt; Brexit Secretary David Davis.

In addition, three female MPs – Suella Fernandes, Lucy Frazer and Nusrat Ghani – have been promoted to government roles for the first time, having previously only represented their constituencies.

May also appointed six female MPs as assistant whips to the commons: Nusrat Ghani, Kelly Tolhurst, Mims Davies, Wendy Morton, Jo Churchill and Amanda Milling. Assistant whips are responsible for trying to ensure that Conservative MPs vote in accordance with the government’s wishes – you can read more about their responsibilities here.

The Guardian reports that the number of women in government overall has now risen from 30 to 37.

However, the vast majority of these new appointments are junior roles without huge amounts of policy-making power – and not everyone has bought the idea that May’s reshuffle is positive for women. For a start, there’s the matter of…

The top team 

Home Secretary Amber Rudd is the most senior woman in Theresa May’s cabinet. 

There have been few really significant changes to the Prime Minister’s cabinet, particularly where women are concerned. Only four new ministers have joined the cabinet who weren’t there last week, and of these only one – Esther McVey, who has been controversially promoted to Work & Pensions Secretary – is a woman.

Overall, May’s top team (including herself) is a little over a quarter female, with six women in the cabinet versus 17 men. (The BBC has a useful infographic showing the whole cabinet here.) 

There are also four women who attend cabinet meetings who are not full cabinet members: newly appointed immigration minister Caroline Nokes, energy minister Claire Perry, chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss, and Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.

The previous May ministry, which ran from June 2017 until this week’s reshuffle, also only had six women serving at any one time, including the PM. 

The PM has yet to climb back to the dizzy heights of her first ministry (July 2016-June 2017), which boasted a still-not-that-impressive ratio of eight women to 14 men.  

The Justine Greening problem 

Justine Greening leaves 10 Downing Street after resigning as Education Secretary on Monday.

One of the key reasons there have been few changes to the cabinet is that several ministers reportedly refused to move when the Prime Minister tried to ‘reshuffle’ them to different posts.

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening was one of those who declined to be demoted, in her case to the Department for Work and Pensions. This refusal ultimately culminated in her handing in her resignation. (The position of Education Secretary has now been filled by Damian Hinds.)

On Twitter, several commentators questioned whether the PM had sent the right message in effectively forcing Greening – a gay woman from a working-class background, and a reasonably popular and moderate Tory politician – to resign. 

As well as being Education Secretary, Greening was also the Women and Equalities Minister. This brief has now been handed to Home Secretary Amber Rudd – but given that Home Secretary is one of the most demanding jobs in government, it is unclear whether Rudd will prioritise the women and equalities post.

May could, if she desired, make Women and Equalities Minister a cabinet post in its own right. By not doing so, she risks being accused of not prioritising the concerns of women and ethnic minorities in the UK – two groups she has made clear she wants to appeal to at the next election.

Finally, controversy has bubbled up over the Prime Minister’s choice of vice-chair for women at CCHQ (Conservative Central Headquarters).

Maria Caulfield 

MP for Lewes Maria Caulfield has been made Conservative vice-chair for women 

May appointed Caulfield as Conservative vice-chair for women on Monday evening. While Caulfield will have no policy-making power in government, she will be responsible for devising campaigns to persuade more women to vote Conservative at the 2022 general election.

This promotion has proved divisive with many feminists due to Caulfield’s track record on abortion rights. The Lewes MP previously spearheaded opposition to a bill that would have decriminalised abortion and stopped women from being prosecuted for buying abortion bills online.

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, summed up the opposition to Caulfield’s appointment in a tweet. 

The verdict  

The PM may well have promoted more women to government positions, but her much-vaunted reshuffle was more of a damp squib than the inclusive, pro-women revamp we were promised.

If May wants to convince voters that she really has women’s best interests at heart, she’s going to have to do better than this. 

Stylist’s Visible Women initiative aims to raise the profiles of women in politics and inspire future generations to follow their lead. For more on Visible Women, click here

Images: Rex Features