Women are being excluded from the very top of government by a “clique” of David Cameron’s Old Etonian and Oxford friends, the first female head of the Home Office warned today.
In a blistering attack on the Prime Minister and the way in which appointments are made at senior levels in government, Dame Helen Ghosh said that Westminster is being driven by powerful networks of men that women found hard to break into.
Downing Street reacted furiously to her remarks and Ms Ghosh later put out a statement attempting to clarify her comments. However, she did not directly deny the words attributed to her.
Dame Helen, who left her job as permanent secretary at the Home Office last month to run the National Trust, said despite a “magical moment” six years ago when half of the heads of departments were women, the situation had since deteriorated. Today, only three female permanent secretaries remain in post.
Speaking to students in Cambridge, Dame Helen said: “If you look at the current government, not necessarily back to the Bullingdon Club days, but Cameron, it is true, it is well known, has a clique, a network of friends – the friends he made at school, friends he made at university.
“That kind of clique network was reinforced in Cameron’s case by the people who worked for him in opposition, the people who supported him in his leadership bid. I do think the fact that politics is so driven by networks does impact on women.”
She added: “Women don’t network. It is actually quite difficult for a woman to get in as part of an Old Etonian clique. They are far too busy doing other things, like bringing up their children, looking after their constituency. That kind of networking is actually a harder thing for women to do.”
Dame Helen’s criticisms were rejected by No 10. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “It’s not true. It doesn’t accord with the facts. There are a number of women in the PM’s team.
“Following the reshuffle there are the same amount of women around the Cabinet table, and a number of new MPs were promoted to ministerial positions in that reshuffle.”
Later, Dame Helen put out a statement which appeared to deny she had said something which she had not been quoted as saying.
“It is entirely false to say that I suggested that I think David Cameron surrounds himself by old Etonians – or that he has too few women in his team. A cursory look at the important roles around him reveals it is simply not the case.”
Cameron's inner circle
Mr Cameron’s £140,000-a-year chief of staff met Mr Cameron when they both studied at Eton.
Known as Mr Cameron’s “gatekeeper”, Ms Fall met the Prime Minister when they were at Oxford.
A comprehensive school student, Mr Cameron’s Director of Communications studied at St Andrews.
Sir Jeremy Heywood
Britain’s most senior civil servant went to a Quaker school before going to Oxford, but not with Mr Cameron.
Another old Etonian Mr Letwin is a key adviser to the Prime Minister across all areas of Government with particular responsibility for liaising with the Lib Dems.