What happened to Cameron’s pledge to increase the number of women in Cabinet? Replacing Maria Miller with Sajid Javid doesn’t exactly help

The Prime Minister has had plenty of time to rectify this imbalance – and he has failed


After a week of looking weak and indecisive over Maria Miller, David Cameron's decision to replace her with Sajid Javid looks, on the face of it, like a clever move. Of all the possible candidates - including Esther McVey and Nicky Morgan - Javid happens to be the best person for the job. So the Prime Minister is sending a strong message that he has made the appointment on merit, despite the heavy expectation that it should be a woman.

To the vexed question of equality, he can answer that he has appointed only the second Muslim ever to sit in the British Cabinet, and the first MP of that faith to sit there. To the even more vexed question of a Cabinet packed with his friends and/or Old Etonians, he can hold up Javid's background as a Rochdale-born, comprehensive-educated son of a bus driver.

This is all good. So why does the fall-out from the Miller resignation feel like a loss for women? Not just literally – female representation in the Cabinet has fallen from four to three (there are now more women Cabinet Ministers called Theresa than there are women Cabinet Ministers who do not have this name), and there are now no mothers in the Cabinet for the first time since 1992 – but generally, for the wider issue of women in politics.

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This is as much to do with Miller’s handling of her affair as Cameron’s response to it. Throughout the investigation into her expenses, and even before then, she has played the working mother card. Last year, she even boasted about how she was the only mother in the Cabinet. In her lengthy and obfuscatory responses to Kathryn Hudson, the Standards Commissioner, she pointed out that she was a working mother, who had extra responsibilities beside those as an MP, and that she relied on an au pair to prepare her house for the arrival of her family at weekends. In her resignation letter, Miller reminded the Prime Minister that she was a “working mother educated at a South Wales comprehensive school”.

Of course it is good to have mothers sitting around the Cabinet table – among those who attend Cabinet, but are not full members, are Sayeeda Warsi and now Nicky Morgan, the newly-promoted Minister for Women and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Because the representation of women in politics is so woeful – just one in five MPs, if anyone needs reminding, is female – I recently converted to the cause of all-women shortlists because the system needs to be jump-started to achieve equality. Yet the fact of being a mother, even one who was, like me, educated at a comprehensive school, should not carry with it immunity from wrongdoing. To use this as cover - as protection from the sack or in mitigation in a resignation letter - is an insult to working mothers (and working fathers). It’s as if we think we can get away with making poor judgements because we are so befuddled by the demands of parenthood.

For the Prime Minister, he should be applauded for choosing Javid as his new Culture Secretary. Yet that applause should be muted by his wider failure to reach his target of a third of all government ministers to be female by the end of this Parliament. Given that this was an ambition he set out well before entering Downing Street, he cannot say he hasn’t had enough time to promote women through the ranks. And it cannot be that women are worse than men at anything – being a Cabinet minister, MP or bus driver. So it must be that Cameron, who has surrounded himself in Downing Street with Old Etonians and promoted many friends in government, has not done enough to gear the system, structurally, to reach his target.

From Day One as Prime Minister, he should have worked to promote women as ministers – and today he could have taken his pick from several women to put in the Cabinet. It is possible, of course, that he is saving the promotion of Morgan, McVey or excellent ministers like Anna Soubry, currently at Defence, for a wider Cabinet reshuffle later this year, and then we can cheer. But it will be too little, too late.

Twitter: @janemerrick23

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