Joan Smith: We don't do female sacrifice any more, Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

It was a bloodbath. Last week, like a wounded warrior trying to appease vengeful gods, Gordon Brown sacrificed one woman after another in a desperate attempt to save his own skin. By Friday evening, the stench of burning female flesh rose over Westminster as Margaret Beckett and Caroline Flint were added to the pyre, joining Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Beverley Hughes. The cull was drastic, reducing the number of women in the Cabinet from eight, when Tony Blair left office two years ago, to a feeble four. There are now more peers (seven) than women round the cabinet table and Brown need lose only one more to be in the same position as John Major in 1997. So much for a Prime Minister who portrays himself, morning, noon and night, as a politician committed to fairness and equal rights. I mean, pull the other one, mate.

Middle-ranking minister Flint said something along those lines in a furious resignation letter, accusing Brown of using her as "female window dressing" and breaking a promise to invite her to cabinet meetings when her brief, Europe, was on the agenda. Earlier in the day, Brown appointed an über-bloke, Sir Alan Sugar, as an adviser even as a disproportionate number of female ministers were heading for the exit. Of all the unforgivable things this Prime Minister has done, appointing Sugar is among the worst; the entrepreneur is best-known as a game-show host, for God's sake, and he's on record as believing it's reasonable for employers to be wary of women of child-bearing age. Sugar is also a symbol of the bullying TV culture which has turned rudeness into something to be aspired to, helping to create an atmosphere of scorn and cynicism.

Now I read that he's one of the Prime Minister's best friends – and that make a lot of sense. The true face of Brown's inner circle was revealed weeks ago by the sniggering, school-boyish emails written by his disgraced aide Damian McBride. One of the things McBride wanted to do was smear a Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, with a fabricated story about an affair and a sex toy. A sex toy? Apparently no one at No 10 has ever watched Sex and the City or talked to a modern woman who has one in her bedside drawer.

After last week's upheavals, the three great offices of state after the Prime Minister – Chancellor, Home and Foreign Secretaries – are once again occupied by men. Brown put some new (and old) faces into Cabinet but he couldn't find a single backbencher or junior minister to replace Flint as Europe minister, bringing in Glenys Kinnock, who has never been an MP and had to be given a seat in the House of Lords. What we're witnessing is the near-extinction of democratically elected women, as a terminally damaged PM copies David Cameron's front-bench boys' club.

There was an attempt to explain the exodus of female ministers as a plot by what the media patronisingly dubbed the WAGs – Women Against Gordon – but most of them jumped before they were pushed. It was Brown's inexcusable favouritism towards male members of his Cabinet that precipitated the normally chirpy Hazel Blears into a staggering act of revenge; she was right to be furious when Brown labelled her housing arrangements "unacceptable" while failing to single out Geoff Hoon and Alistair Darling for similar criticism.

Blears has been ferociously criticised for the timing of her resignation, but I suspect she foresaw the gender meltdown Brown was planning. It's a tragedy of Greek proportions, and if I were the PM, I'd be worried more about the Eumenides than the WAGs.