'Window dressing' tops female complaints

Brown and women

One of the first senior Labour politicians to suggest there was something in Gordon Brown's character that made him unsuitable to be Prime Minister was the late Mo Mowlam, who was appointed his deputy on the opposition front bench 20 years ago.

She complained that Brown and the group of male politicians around him treated her with childish condescension. When the Labour leadership became vacant in 1994, she declared for Tony Blair, in preference to Brown.

The charge that the Prime Minister is misogynist can be expected to crop up again after this week's events. Following in the wake of Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Margaret Beckett, the Europe minister, Caroline Flint, made her's the fourth high-profile resignation by a woman minister in three days. Where Smith stayed doggedly loyal to the Prime Minister, and Blears was circumspect, Flint pulled no punches. "Several of the women attending Cabinet – myself included – have been treated by you as little more than female window-dressing," she wrote in her resignation letter to the Prime Minister. "I am not willing to attend Cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer."

Two months ago, when Downing Street was rocked by the revelation that one of Brown's spin doctors, Damian McBride, had sent an email passing on rumours about Tories' private lives, it was suggested that the scandal came out of a testerone-fuelled male environment in Downing Street. Apart from Brown's long-serving gatekeeper, Sue Nye, there are no senior women advisers in Downing Street.

But Brown's defenders point out that he appointed Jacqui Smith as the first ever female Home Secretary. And they drew a contrast between what Flint said yesterday and the previous evening, when she insisted that she would stay in the Government: "I am very proud to be in a Labour Government and very proud to be part of Gordon Brown's Government," she said then.

Yesterday Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, said women were still having to battle for parity with men in politics, but claimed that Gordon Brown was an ally, not an obstacle. "I don't agree that Gordon does not take women in politics seriously – he does," she said. The outcome of yesterday's reshuffle is that the number of women Cabinet ministers has fallen from five to four.