Theresa May's incompetence has set women in politics back decades

In spite of talented MPs such as Esther McVey and Jo Swinson returning to Parliament, the proportion of female MPs has only risen from 30 per cent to 32 per cent. At this rate it will take half a century to achieve equality

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 09 June 2017 14:44
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Former secretary of state for employment Esther McVey won in Tatton, but this has not been an election for women
Former secretary of state for employment Esther McVey won in Tatton, but this has not been an election for women

This election result has been a disaster for women in politics. We’ve ended up with a lame duck who not only failed to connect with voters, but seemed to lack people skills when they were most needed. Most importantly, Theresa May lacked courage, refusing to debate and confront her critics head on.

In just over a century, we’ve gone from brave suffragettes prepared to die for the right to vote to being asked to put our future in the hands of a reserved, constricted woman ill at ease in the lights of a television studio.

A week ago, I wrote that May had morphed from a leader who new supporters described as ‘‘someone you can trust to get things done’’ at the start of her campaign into a hesitant speaking clock, repeating a limited mantra of catchphrases to diminishing effect and public derision. The big blue battle bus emblazoned with May’s name, over that of her party, has turned out to be as big a turkey as Miliband's "Edstone", a symbol of misplaced optimism and arrogance.

Tim Farron: 'If Theresa May has an ounce of self respect she will resign'

The Prime Minister apparently failed to grasp that we were not voting for a president, but a leader. In her effort to appear capable, May seemed distant, her appearances heavily stage-managed. Worse, she seemed unable to conduct off-the-cuff conversations (just a chat, after all; something that both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson excel at) with any warmth or charisma. That proved to be Gordon Brown’s undoing, too.

Early on, May said she was proud to be called "a bloody difficult woman", but a good result in negotiations isn’t achieved by being trenchant and immobile. Successful women (just like successful men) come with very different qualities, and for her to pick such a potentially negative quality as her USP was very revealing. Plenty of studies suggest that, in general, many women are particularly good at team building and are more willing to compromise than men – the very opposite of the stereotype May opted for.

The Prime Minister has long campaigned for more women at the top in government, but her personal brand of girl power seemed outdated. As for compromise, now she will be forced to rely on the support of another woman: Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP in Northern Ireland.

The DUP is socially conservative, and Northern Ireland exempt from the provisions of the Abortion Act – another reason this result is not good news for women. The first female prime minister since Maggie Thatcher seems to ape the worse characteristics of the Iron Lady, a chilly remoteness coupled with a chronic misinterpretation of her core voter’s concerns which verges on the patronising.

Broadly, older women tend to vote Conservative, but May’s spur-of-the-moment proposals to change social care will have truly frightened them (after all, the majority of unpaid carers are female too), and her subsequent U-turn will have enraged these older female voters even further. May seemed a ditherer, a most unattractive quality in a leader.

Younger women tend to vote Labour, and this election has failed them too: Corbyn’s team fielded the lacklustre line up of Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott to the media; both have retained their seats, but neither performed with any credit.

And what about clever Labour women such as Yvette Cooper, who refused to back Jeremy Corbyn as their leader? Cue silence (although Lucy Powell, who won Manchester Central, told BBC Radion 4's Woman’s Hour that she now feels able to work with her leader).

The one woman who emerges from this mess with credit is Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who won 12 seats – and she doesn’t even have a seat in Westminster.

General Election 2017: The biggest shocks

Already, the knives are out for May. Lord Turnbull, a former cabinet secretary, has said "she’s not up to the job". Anna Soubry reckons May must "consider her position". Tory MP Nigel Evans described the campaign as "an absolute disaster … a full-frontal attack on core voters".

In spite of talented MPs such as the Tory Esther McVey and the Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson returning to Parliament, the proportion of female MPs has risen only very slightly from 30 per cent to 32 per cent of the Commons. At this rate it will take half a century to achieve equality, and May has done nothing to speed up that process. She’s lost two female Ministers – Jane Ellison (to Labour in Battersea) and Nicola Blackwood (after a 15 per cent swing to the Lib Dems in Oxford West and Abingdon), as well as the MP Dr Tania Mathias, who lost Twickenham to former Lib Deb leader Vince Cable.

A hung parliament will require cunning, collaboration and compromise. Is Theresa May the woman for the job?

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