Perhaps the question seems absurd when, after all, nearly a quarter of the Cabinet are women and occupying posts which all sound immensely imposing, influential and important. The Chief Whip, the Leader of the House, the Leader of the Lords, the Cabinet Co-ordinator - these are all jobs currently occupied by women. The truth is, however, that at a political level they are the equivalent of the Great Housekeeping Roles of State. The Prime Minister has, in effect, told the girls to get on with the dusting.
I have not, of course, forgotten Clare Short. She is the one remaining Cabinet minister who can still call herself Secretary of State since Margaret Beckett lost Trade and Industry and was made Leader of the House (the job, don't forget, that Margaret Thatcher gave Geoffrey Howe when she sacked him as Foreign Secretary but couldn't dispose of him altogether), Harriet Harman got the push from Social Security and Mo Mowlam was recalled to mainland service from Northern Ireland. But what is Ms Short's department? International development - a vital, worthwhile and rewarding position which keeps the minister busy worrying about wells in the Third World rather than the British mainstream.
Dr Mowlam has publicly insisted that she is happy with her new responsibilities at the Cabinet Office, although few believe her and it has been an open secret for months that her relationship with the Prime Minister has not been all it was. It has been fairly obvious that the problem was mainly a personal one: her extraordinary public popularity and her independent- minded ability to stand up for herself and what she believes to be right. A lot of people felt that her fate was sealed the moment she won that standing ovation in the middle of his speech to last year's Labour conference. It is not that Tony Blair doesn't like strong and competent women. He does; he married one after all. But his wife doesn't present any kind of political challenge to him - in the way, for example, that Hillary does to Bill Clinton, or even perhaps as Glenys did (or does) to Neil Kinnock - and what he does not like is being challenged, being eclipsed by another, man or woman. He runs an autocratic government and he does not wish to stand in the shade cast by one of his ministers, as was happening in Northern Ireland. So Mo had to go.
This is not primarily a matter of gender. Gordon Brown is not a threat because he is busy running the economy, and while he occasionally makes a spot of trouble he gets back in his box fairly quickly. Peter Mandelson is no problem because he is not popular. Alastair Campbell is not elected. But men who stand up against the political orthodoxy of the moment trigger a similar response: the lengths the Government pursued to prevent the election of the popular and independent-minded Rhodri Morgan as First Minister in Wales is one example. Another is Ken Livingstone.
The Prime Minister does like his ministers to be competent. They need to be, of course, in order that his administration can be seen to be operating efficiently and thus reflecting his success. If they fail in this regard they can expect to face dismissal, even if they are close personal friends - as Harriet Harman found out.
But more important even than capability, is compliance. He wants people who do what they are told and there is now a structure in place within the Labour Party at Westminster to see that they do. Most ambitious young Labour MPs have recognised the significance of this if they wish to pursue a meaningful career in the Government, as is only too evident in the sycophancy so brazenly demonstrated by those who seek promotion.
It is a subject of particular relevance to women, however, partly because there are so many of them now at Westminster, but also because there are a number of capable, independent-minded women in the lower and middle ranks of this administration who may soon find that they are facing a dilemma in their careers if they exhibit any facility for stubbornly asserting their own view of significant political issues. They may find, then, that far from being given posts that match their competence, they will instead be shunted off to housekeeping, sidelined into political obscurity. There are, for example, people of the intelligence of Patricia Hewitt and Barbara Roche, Tessa Jowell and Dawn Primarolo, Yvette Cooper and Baroness Symons, who have all been tipped as potential future members of the Cabinet but who will all find that they will not prosper if, having got that far, they then fail to fall into line and do precisely what is wanted. There is also growing evidence that voters are concerned about the treatment of women in the Government. Internal Labour Party polling has detected a drop-off of female supporters. They have spotted that women have not been promoted to run the big spending ministries.
In the New Year Tony Blair will come under further pressure to boost women's status when Harriet Harman launches a campaign for more female MPs. Ms Harman claims that unless Labour acts to encourage more candidates it will lose women's votes.
As to progress up the career ladder for Labour women MPs, there is possibly an age factor involved. All of the five women presently in the Cabinet are much the same age - 50-plus. All of them, except Baroness Jay, the Leader of the House of Lords, are elected, career politicians who have spent their lives to date seeking political power, hoping to get into the Government.
The four of them, Mo Mowlam, Clare Short, Margaret Beckett and Ann Taylor, the Chief Whip, are people who know the Labour Party, who know which side is up in politics and who know what they think. They are also old enough to be able to assert their views, who are prepared stubbornly to stick to a particular position. They are with "new" Labour, but not of it. Unlike, of course, Baroness Jay. And unlike many of the new intake of women MPs, the famed Blair's babes who owe their election to the House of Commons to his leadership of the party.
This is something of which they are likely to be forcibly reminded unless they want to end up with the plight of today's women Cabinet ministers. That was underlined on Friday in a bizarre photograph in the Independent. It showed Baroness Jay and Dr Mowlam standing at the entrance to the Garrick Club on their way to lunch therein. As the Garrick is a gentlemen's club which does not accept women members and as the two ministers between them have responsibility for "women's issues", there was clearly a political message here. The object of the exercise was, apparently, to demonstrate that contrary to a recent report in another newspaper the Government has no intention of changing the law to oblige men's clubs to accept women members. Is that a job for a grown-up politician?
Julia Langdon is writing the biography of Mo Mowlam, which will be published next year.Reuse content