David Cameron’s judgement was called into question by Conservative MPs as his “problem with women” was highlighted by a chaotic reshuffle after the resignation of Maria Miller.
The Prime Minister was accused of marginalising women after he put a man, Sajid Javid, in charge of equalities and appointed a Minister for Women, Nicky Morgan, who opposed same-sex marriage. His reshuffle means there is no mother in the Cabinet for the first time since 1992, and leaves the number of female full Cabinet ministers - three - at its lowest level since 1997.
Mr Cameron came under fire for allowing Ms Miller to cling on to her job as Culture Secretary for six long days after a perfunctory 32-second Commons apology for her response during a Parliamentary inquiry into allegations about her expenses.
In what was dubbed a "Whitehall farce", Mr Cameron's swift mini-reshuffle backfired. Mr Javid, a Treasury minister, was promoted to Culture Secretary and also took on Ms Miller's work as Equalities Minister. But so as to avoid him being Minister for Women, that part of Ms Miller's brief was handed to Ms Morgan, a Treasury minister promoted to Mr Javid's former number three position in George Osborne's department.
It leaves four ministers with responsibility for women's issues - Mr Javid, Ms Morgan, Helen Grant, the Sports Minister, and Jenny Willott, a Liberal Democrat minister at the Department for Business. Downing Street was unable to say which minister would answer questions in the Commons on issues such as women's pay and lesbian marriages.
Three hours after insisting Ms Morgan would report to Mr Javid, Number 10 made a U-turn. Mr Cameron's spokesman said: "Nicky Morgan will report directly to the Prime Minister on women's issues. I want to correct a mistake I made." He said Ms Morgan would attend all meetings of the Cabinet, even though she is not a full member.
Labour claimed the chaos revealed Mr Cameron's "blind spot" over women. Gloria de Piero, the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, said: "David Cameron's decision to replace Maria Miller with Sajid Javid means that there is now no full member of the Cabinet speaking for women. There are now just three women running Government departments out of a possible 22, demonstrating that when it comes to women, it's out of sight, out of mind for this out of touch Government."
Nan Sloane, director of the Centre for Women in Democracy, said: "Despite his pre-election pledge to make a third of his ministerial list female, the Prime Minister is now running the country with a Cabinet that's almost 90 per cent male. This mini-reshuffle has taken us backwards not forwards when it comes to women's representation."
The official version of events is that Ms Miller decided to leave the Cabinet because the media coverage of the expenses controversy was a "distraction." But senior Conservatives believe she was pushed out by Downing Street on Tuesday evening, as Mr Cameron faced two cross-examinations yesterday at Prime Minister's Questions and a meeting with Tory backbenchers, many of whom had lost confidence in Ms Miller amid voter anger about her behaviour.
Mr Cameron and his officials did not deny speculation that a Downing Street emissary told Ms Miller her time was up on Tuesday night. "The decision was made late yesterday [Tuesday] afternoon to get rid of her," one government source said. According to this version, Number 10's verdict was "not something she immediately grasped." A claim by Mary Macleod, her Parliamentary aide, that Ms Miller was the victim of a media "witch-hunt", was said to be "the final nail in the coffin" for Downing Street.
In her resignation letter this morning, Ms Miller appeared to blame her downfall on her role in implementing the Leveson inquiry proposals for tougher press regulation. She said this "would always be controversial for the press". In an emotional TV interview in which she was close to tears, Ms Miller took "full responsibility" for her decision to stand down. She is entitled to a pay-off of more than £17,000 but has decided to give it to "a local charity" in her Basingstoke constituency.
Mr Cameron raised the prospect of an eventual frontbench return but, after a week of damaging headlines, senior Tories doubt that will happen. "The rule is go quickly, then you can come back," one said. "The PM had a trial of strength with the press and he lost. This is the worst of all worlds."
Nick de Bois, secretary of the 1922 Committee of MPs, said: "This should not have been allowed to drag on the way it did." He said some Conservatives did not understand how "toxic" the MPs' expenses issue remains for the public, even though the rules have changed since the 2009 scandal erupted - and Ms Miller was cleared of the original allegations against her.
Mr Cameron tried to draw a line under the controversy during a 20-minute appearance before the 1922 Committee this evening, telling his MPs he was not the sort of person to "drop" a colleague at the first sign of trouble. He urged them to focus on four big fights - next month's local and European elections, the Scottish independence referendum in September and next year's general election. A senior Tory said: "24 hours ago, this would have been a very different meeting, a showdown. It was almost like a relief rally."
One Tory MP said: "There is no sense of grip in Downing Street. The handling of this whole affair has been a shambles - they have shown a tin ear to the public mood over expenses."
Another said: "Number 10 have always handled the press badly. This was just another example of that in a long list."
Both Mr Javid and Ms Morgan are close allies of Mr Osborne. Andrea Leadsom, a backbencher who has criticised the Chancellor in the past, was promoted to Ms Morgan's old job as Treasury Economic Secretary.
Visiting Basingstoke, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, called for a by-election there. He accused the Coalition of failing to deliver on its promise to give voters the power to "recall" MPs who behave badly.
Timeline: 32-second apology to resignation in six days
Last Thursday Maria Miller makes 32-second apology in the Commons after being told to pay £5,800 of overclaimed expenses. She was also accused of trying to thwart the Standards Commissioner's investigation with "legalistic" objections. David Cameron stands by her.
Friday A recording of a phone call is released by The Daily Telegraph in which Jo Hindley, her special adviser, "flags up" to a reporter that the Culture Secretary would be meeting the paper's editor about the Leveson Report into press standards.
Saturday Fresh questions are raised over whether Ms Miller will pay capital gains tax on the sale of her home. A poll finds 78 per cent of voters think she should quit. The Ipsa chief, Sir Ian Kennedy, says MPs should no longer police each other's conduct.
Sunday Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman, calls for her resignation.
Monday Ms Miller begins to lose support among Tory MPs, with the minister Esther McVey among those going public with their criticism. Mr Cameron again defends her.
Tuesday The trickle of criticism becomes a tide, but Downing Street insists the PM will not bow to the pressure. Mrs Miller tells her local paper she is "devastated" by the episode and her ministerial aide, Mary Macleod, says her boss faces a press witch-hunt.
7.20am today Ms Miller announces resignation following a phone call with Mr Cameron.