Appearing before the House of Commons liaison committee, the prime minister was told by chair Sir Bernard Jenkin: “It’s not a joking matter.”
Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, who is chair of the women and equalities committee, had asked Johnson why women have not been more visible during Downing Street’s response to the outbreak.
He said: “It’s certainly true that I would have liked to have had more female representation in the press conferences so far.
“Er, we’ve had, er, Jennie Harries has been mentioned. Priti [Patel, the home secretary] has done a few… we will do our best, Caroline.
“And, erm, you know, er, what can I say?”
Nokes then followed up: “You made the distinction between there being a lot of women and enough women. How many is enough?”
Johnson responded “oh boy” before laughing. “That’s a question on which I’m not competent to pronounce.”
Nokes questioned: “Is it not 50%?”
Jenkin then told Johnson: “It’s not a joking matter though, is it?”
The PM responded: “It’s not and all I’d say, Caroline, is it’s incredibly important to us as Conservatives. Fifty per cent would be great. We have large numbers of female MPs of great talent including yourself in the House of Commons.”
Breaking into a shout, Johnson added: “And, never forget, it’s only the Conservative Party that has produced two female prime ministers... maybe you’ll be the third.”
During the pandemic, Johnson has been criticised for forming a leading decision making team of male cabinet ministers: Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove.
The PM was urged by former Tory colleague Amber Rudd not to “pack the women away”. She said “equality means better decisions”.
The Downing Street press conferences have also been male-dominated. Since they began on 16 March, all but three have been led by male ministers.
The liaison committee is the only House of Commons committee that can question a PM, providing a different type of scrutiny to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the main chamber.
PMs usually appear before the liaison committee two or three times a year. However, before Wednesday, Johnson had gone an entire 10 months as PM without attending.
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