Sunday, May 09, 2010

There go the girls

Iain Martin makes the astute spot that a Con-Lib coalition could result in the first woman-free Cabinet for 18 years.

There are no female Lib Dems involved in the coalition talks and it is hard to see any of their seven woman MPs - down from nine before the election - pushing for a seat in a combined Cabinet.

But if the Lib Dems do strike a deal where they take three or four Cabinet posts, it could bump a couple of Tory women out. Theresa Villiers must be particularly vulnerable as transport, the role she handled in opposition, has been identified as one brief that the Tories might give up.

Theresa May and Caroline Spelman could also be under threat, although there are a few male Cabinet colleagues that I'm sure David Cameron wouldn't mind an excuse to lose. Surely he would be too savvy to leave himself open to accusations of sexism.

It is a travesty that in the 81 years since Margaret Bondfield became the first woman to hold a Cabinet post, only 27 women have followed in her steps.

Tories have a pretty bad record at elevating women to the Cabinet. Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shepherd served in John Major's Cabinet from 1992-97, but for the first two years of Major's premiership there were no women.

And while the Conservatives are rightly proud of producing the country's only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was hardly supportive of the sisterhood. Her only female Cabinet minister was Baroness Young, who led the party in the Lords for only two years.

Perhaps future Tory Cabinets will be more enlightened. Gradually the talent pool is growing, with 48 Tory women elected last week, up from 18. The more there are, the more good ones will emerge and, one hopes, get the tap on the shoulder.

Gordon Brown's last (we assume last) Cabinet had four women in it - Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, Yvette Cooper and Baroness Royall. This was half the number that Tony Blair had in his Cabinet at the peak, with 15 women being given a Cabinet post during Blair's ten years as PM.

The overall number of women MPs has gone up from 126 last week to 141, with the likelihood that Anne McIntosh will win the held-over Thirsk and Malton election on May 27. But that increase of 16 is some way short of the 40 extra women MPs that the Centre for Women and Democracy envisaged in a report before the election.

Labour's contingent of women MPs fell from 94 to 81 last week, but as a proportion of their overall intake it rose to 31 per cent. The Tories are improving, but Labour remains the best place for a girl to get ahead.

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