Boris Johnson was unable to say how many women in top jobs would be “enough” to secure proper gender representation when he was grilled by fellow Conservatives on equality in the cabinet, during a tense liaison committee hearing.
He said he thought there was sufficient number of women helping to inform decisions on coronavirus, and that having women in the room made a “huge difference” to the nature of decisions taken. “I acknowledge that may sound like a vaguely sexist thing to say, but it’s very important,” Mr Johnson said.
Caroline Nokes, the women and equalities committee chair, asked whose advice the PM had taken on reopening schools at the same time as the retail sector – where she said 60 per cent of employees were female – and how the move might impact the availability of childcare.
Mr Johnson said: “I think your question, Caroline, is directed at whether or not we’ve got sufficiently female representation at the top of government helping us to inform these decisions and I really think we have.
“The head of policy at Number 10 is Munira Mirza, the election manifesto on which we both fought successfully was written by two women and the most important appointments we’ve made just in the last couple of weeks ... have also been women.”
Following two further questions about the role of equalities experts in the government’s decision-making, Ms Nokes asked Mr Johnson: “You made the distinction between there being ‘a lot’ of women and ‘enough’ women – how many is enough?”
The prime minister, appearing to realise he had been snookered, is heard to say “Oh boy” and laugh nervously, before recovering and adding: “That’s a question on which I’m not competent to pronounce.” One of the other MPs in the virtual hearing was also heard to laugh briefly in reaction to the pointed questioning.
Ms Nokes followed up by asking, “Is it not 50 per cent?” before Sir Bernard Jenkin, the committee chair, told the prime minister gender equality was “not a joking matter”.
“It’s not,” the prime minister quickly agreed. “All I say, Caroline, is that it’s incredibly important to us as Conservatives and we have more – 50 per cent would be great – we have large numbers of female MPs of great talents, including yourself, in the House of Commons now, far more, I believe, than – and never forget, it’s only the Conservative Party that’s produced two female prime ministers.”
“Let’s not start with all that,” Sir Bernard interjected. “Best not,” said Ms Nokes, who found out she had been sacked as immigration minister by Mr Johnson in 2019 when a journalist tweeted the news.