David Cameron has launched a desperate attempt to win back female voters after new research for The Independent on Sunday shows the Prime Minister has a "trust deficit" with women that could cost him the next general election.
After his questionable handling of the sacking of senior women ministers in his reshuffle last week, the Prime Minister has ordered Maria Miller, the new Culture Secretary and Equalities Minister, to draw up plans to appeal to the female vote, ranging from help for women to set up their own businesses to reducing childcare costs.
This autumn a commission will set out plans for reducing the costs of childcare, as well as increasing access to nannies and childminders by reducing red tape. The new Education minister, Liz Truss, has been working on plans for reducing the burden on childcare providers as a backbencher and is involved in the plans.
Later this month, the Government will publish proposals, alongside the British Banking Association, for increased access to finance for pregnant women and mothers – so-called "mumpreneurs".
But research shows that the Prime Minister has a long way to go to win the trust of female voters. Analysis by ComRes for The IoS shows that Mr Cameron has a poll rating of about minus 25 per cent among women, compared with minus 18 per cent among men, who were asked whether they trust the PM on the economy. The gender gap has remained between 7 per cent and 12 per cent for several months.
A separate study by the Electoral Reform Society and the Fawcett Society shows that Mr Cameron is on course to break his pledge, made in April 2009, for a third of all government ministers to be female by the end of his first term. Female representation in government rose from 17.2 per cent before the reshuffle to 18.2 per cent after, and there is likely to be just one more reshuffle, if any, before the next election.
Following the government shake-up, there was one fewer woman in the Cabinet, one fewer female minister of state, although the number of women parliamentary under-secretaries, the most junior ministerial rank, has risen by three. There are nine government departments, including the Treasury, that have no female ministers, the report shows.
Mr Cameron is under fire for implying that the outgoing Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, was too old to remain in government by comparing her to Sir George Young (who left his job as Leader of the Commons at 71), even though her replacement Owen Paterson, at 56, is two years older than she is. There was also anger from Mr Cameron's own Tory benches for giving knighthoods to male junior ministers who were let go, but not honouring Ms Spelman, a former Conservative chairman, or Cheryl Gillan, the outgoing Welsh Secretary who served as a minister in John Major's government. The suggestion that Ms Gillan and Ms Spelman would instead be given peerages alarmed friends of both women who said they were not intending to stand down as MPs.
No 10 was also forced to deny that Mr Cameron drank wine as he sacked Ms Gillan in his Commons office on Monday evening, although it is understood he had been drinking wine beforehand. Ms Gillan's friends said she had been inundated with messages of support from women MPs on all sides of the House. The Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, a fierce critic of the Prime Minister, tweeted: "If Cameron is handing out gongs to sacked ministers why didn't loyal, stoic, hard-working Cheryl Gillan get one? Or are they just for boys?"
The storm was reminiscent of the reaction to Mr Cameron's jibe to the Labour frontbencher Angela Eagle last year to "calm down, dear". Leading female trade unionists are likely to use this week's TUC Congress in Brighton to criticise the Prime Minister's record on women.
Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of Britain's largest union, Unite, described women's presence in the Cabinet as "pretty shocking". "For there to be fewer women around the cabinet table discussing critical issues that affect people's lives sends a terrible message. Women are most likely to be opposed to the cuts agenda, and are hardest hit."
Frances O'Grady, who becomes the TUC's first female general secretary at the end of this year, told the IoS: "In the lead-up to the election, we heard from the Conservative Party leadership about the need to detoxify the brand and look more like modern Britain and that has to be welcomed, but what's happened since doesn't really match up. Even down to that off-the-cuff comment about butch up, I was thinking, actually, they need to fem up. That's the real challenge for any party that wants to win women's votes."
Writing in The IoS today, Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary and Labour's spokesperson on women and equalities, said the Prime Minister had a "blind spot" when it came to women. She added: "We already know David Cameron has a problem with women. But the stories from the sacking of Caroline Spelman suggests he has a particular problem with older women, too. And it matters... because women across the country are being heavily hit by this government, and older women are getting particularly squeezed."
Ms Cooper said the pay gap between men and women is higher among older people than younger adults. She said these older women were part of the "stretched middle" who are also suffering the steepest rise in unemployment.
A poll of Tory members for ConservativeHome published yesterday found that 63 per cent believe Mr Cameron's handing out of knighthoods to sacked ministers was an "inappropriate use of the honours system". However, 74 per cent said they weren't concerned about the number of women in the Cabinet.
Mr Cameron has been aware of bad polling for his government among women for some time: internal polling shows women hate the austerity agenda, while female voters are consistently less supportive of the Conservatives than men.
The Chancellor's Budget in March went some way to winning women over, including lessening the cuts to child benefit – although George Osborne stopped short of scrapping the benefit reduction altogether.
Chief executive of the Fawcett Society
"David Cameron and other politicians must know that keeping their top tables male, pale and stale is not only unjust, but that ultimately – unless they take radical action – it will hit them where it hurts: in the ballot box."
Green Party, London Assembly member
"[David Cameron's] promise to have women as a third of the Cabinet is likely to be worth as much as his green promises, ie, worthless. To use talented women, you have to encourage them to step forward and create an atmosphere where they can do their best work. I don't believe he has the foggiest idea of how to create trust and enthusiasm."
Tory former minister
"I think [David Cameron] was doing a Cabinet reshuffle and he was going to make decisions which would affect women as well as men. I don't understand the culture of grievance. Women just go looking to find insults all the time."
"I hate targets. Women don't like being obligatory numbers. It should be the best people that get promoted to the jobs. I think it was a silly thing to do to set a target."
Cabinet minister sacked last week
"My claws were temporarily sheathed, but they haven't lost their sharpness. I'm loyal to my party, but I don't agree with all government policy."