‘Not once did the Chancellor mention childcare in his summer statement, despite a mounting crisis in the sector,” points out Labour’s Tulip Siddiq. The shadow minister for children and champion of working mothers, who delayed the birth of her child in order to take part in a key Brexit vote, said: “You can pump as much money as you like into protecting jobs, but parents won’t be able to go out to work without childcare.”
She is not the only one to notice it. While last week belonged to the Tories’ new golden boy Rishi Sunak and his headline-grabbing £30 billion plan to prevent mass unemployment , in between the VAT cuts and restaurant vouchers and a stamp duty holiday there was a resounding absence: any policies for women. This despite the fact that women are set to be the losers of the pandemic. As our worlds shrank to the four walls of our households, women were more likely to pick up the slack of home-schooling and housework . They are more likely to work in industries such as hospitality that have been affected by the economic downturn. This month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers are combining “paid work with other activities — almost always childcare — in 47 per cent of their work hours, compared with 30 per cent of fathers’ work hours”.
Women are used to being left behind by governments, but many at the heart of Westminster say that this speaks to a systemic problem with this government. Under Johnson, there is a vacuum of women at Whitehall’s top tables. The Prime Minister has, by stealth, ushered in a new age of macho politics.
Start with the Cabinet. While the PM, a maestro of evasion, is always keen to make a noise about the fact that the Tories have had two female PMs to Labour’s nought, the history lesson cannot distract from the fact that the current cabinet of 22 contains only seven women. Munira Mirza, Johnson’s former cultural adviser at City Hall, heads Number 10’s policy unit, but remains the lone woman in the PM’s inner circle. During the dark days of Johnson’s stint in intensive care , the country was run by a “quad” of men: Michael Gove chaired daily meetings with Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock and Sunak to discuss key decisions on the virus response. And of course, Dominic Cummings is permanently lurking. He is unlikely to be the ally Westminster women dream of.
Out of 92 press briefings conducted between March and June, only three were led by a woman: Home Secretary Priti Patel, the most senior woman in government. MPs point out that Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey should have hosted at least one conference, given that she heads the department dealing with the mammoth task of processing millions of new universal credit claimants caused by the pandemic.
Would the UK have fared better with women in charge? Last month, the UK was given the dubious honour of coming second bottom in a league table of how well the world’s richest nations responded to the coronavirus pandemic, losing out only to the US. Critics point to the relative successes of countries such as New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan — each led by women. As Hillary Clinton put it: “Women have been demonstrating the kind of inclusive, empathetic, science-based leadership that we should be trying to promote across the world.”
Still, there’s no hope of that type of leadership in evidence here any time soon. Nearly all the government departments are led by men and dominated by men — and even at the junior level, where things start to balance out, there are 17 female junior ministers to 21 male. And only a quarter of Conservative Party MPs are female, compared with the Labour Party, which now has more women MPs than men. The Tories also lost experienced female MPs at the last election, including Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd, Seema Kennedy, Claire Perry and Dame Caroline Spelman. Former Tory minister Caroline Nokes describes the Government’s problem as “institutional thoughtlessness”, adding “it’s about ‘he who shouts loudest’. There’s a reason why that saying is ‘he’, it’s not she.
The macho mood extends to Whitehall culture, too. The PM’s persistent public schoolboy bluster can give the impression that the Chamber is, in fact, the common room of a boarding house at Eton. “You see pictures of the Prime Minister doing push-ups but you can’t quite imagine Theresa May ever doing that. I do think it’s a macho thing,” observes Nokes.
Some of the PM’s closest cronies also make a point of macho posturing. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab seems to enjoy his “hard man” image in Westminster, boasting of his black belt in karate, and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been known to keep a tarantula called Cronus on his desk, along with a hunting whip in a nod to his time as Chief Whip. One Tory rolled her eyes at the sheer prevalence of “rugger bugger” public school boys across the party, accusing them of “giant willy waving of the most horrific kind. They never learnt how to speak to girls until they went to university — and then they were drunk.”
Tories suggest the party’s selection process is still not as “open-minded” as it should be, and there are difficulties in getting women to run. Often female candidates come from a successful business career and have to be persuaded to stand. Baroness Jenkin, a Tory peer who co-founded Women2Win with Theresa May in 2005, an accelerator aimed to help elect more Conservative women to Parliament, observes that the pipeline of female candidates remains “disappointing”. “We’ve got to do better. This isn’t about political correctness. It’s because women’s life experiences are different to men. Women’s lives have been and will in the future be disproportionately affected by coronavirus and they need to be better understood.”
Still, a new wave of young female MPs entered Parliament in the 2019 election — including Dehenna Davison, 26, and Sara Britcliffe, 25. The intake above them includes rising stars such as Kemi Badenoch, elected as the MP for Saffron Walden in 2017, who was promoted to a role in the Treasury in February, and is being tipped as a cabinet hopeful. Another new MP, Cities of London and Westminster MP Nickie Aiken, has quickly been promoted to Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Under pressure from this newspaper, the PM finally agreed to promote women in the next reshuffle.
And as workplaces across the capital undergo a reassessment of their working practices, the pandemic could offer an opportunity for Tories to do the same. Westminster’s bars have been quiet during the pandemic; it is unlikely we will see a return of the blokey, hard-drinking culture which has sidelined women for some time. Good: an overhaul is overdue.
“Although there have certainly been improvements over the years, Parliament still has some way to go to become more friendly for working mums in particular,” Aiken points out. “Not always knowing when you are likely to finish work depending on whether there’s going to be a vote or not has been hard.”