On the 14th of July, UK Prime Minister David Cameron engaged in the most far-reaching and surprising cabinet reshuffle of his term in office. The occupants of key political posts such as the Foreign, Education and Defence Ministers were rejigged, and veteran Ministers such as Kenneth Clarke were dubbed to have reached their political use-by date.
The reactions from various media outlets have been varied; but the recurrent theme running through the Conservative Party’s press statements is that this is the cabinet for “female empowerment”. The reshuffle has seen the number of female cabinet ministers increase to six, with two particularly eminent posts (Home Secretary and Education Secretary) now being occupied by women. It was dubbed by The Daily Telegraph as “the cull of the middle-aged white man”; The Daily Mail reported women to be “winning in the reshuffle”; and the International Business Times saw Cameron “solving the women problem” in cabinet.
But are these claims over a revolutionary wave of female political empowerment being made perhaps too hastily? Although the number of women occupying political office has certainly increased, and this is a sure sign of progress, to describe the reshuffle as a “cull of the middle-aged white man” grossly exaggerates the amplitude of the advances made yesterday. In reality, Cameron’s decisions represent less of a cull, and more of a trim. But even this move, painted by the party and by the media as “bold”, is not tantamount to empowering women in politics; in fact, the government’s track record misses the mark in many respects.
Firstly, from a quantitative perspective, there still aren’t many women occupying important political posts. What the number of women in cabinet really represents is approximately 23% of cabinet positions. Not all of those positions are prominent political posts. The Foreign, Defence, and Health Secretary posts, as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer, continue to be occupied by male ministers. Posts currently occupied by women, such as International Development, Environment and Northern Ireland, concern issues that have not been placed particularly high on the Coalition’s agenda. A large part of the press hubbub has centred on the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan; but since Nicky Morgan already retained the right to attend Cabinet before today – but didn’t hold a full Cabinet post – Cameron has actually given more new men the right to attend Cabinet than women. Doubts can therefore be raised over the value of the supposed female empowerment; a slightly greater number of women does not necessarily equate a greater female voice.
Secondly, the reshuffle has inevitably resulted in an ideological shift within the cabinet- one that does not necessarily serve to benefit women’s rights. Almost as soon as the changes were announced, the reshuffle was dubbed by Labour as “the massacre of the moderates”. Key One Nation figures and those in the “compassionate Conservative” camp, such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, have lost their posts entirely. Both Clarke and Grieve are staunch defenders of Britain’s membership of the European Court of Human Rights, placing issues of human rights protection high on the political agenda. This has included preoccupation with women’s right and gender equality; Clarke, for instance, is the party’s most vocal advocate of the use of all-women party lists in electoral seats, in order to increase the number of female Conservative MPs. Grieve campaigned vigorously in his constituency to increase awareness of sexual assault, and as Attorney-General, made efforts to augment the Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction rate for violence against women and girls, as well as trafficking of women for sexual exploitation.
And most notably, outgoing Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary William Hague placed the issue of targeting sexual violence against women in armed conflict high on his personal agenda. But with such figures, and their concern for domestic and global gender inequalities, departing the Cabinet for the remaining few months in office, it is doubtable whether the incoming Cabinet will attach as much importance to a broader meaning of female empowerment as it claims to be doing.
But consider now the figures who remain in the executive branch. Nicky Morgan, the new Education Secretary, who has advocated reducing the upper limit on when abortions may take place from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. Steve Hilton, a key strategist of Cameron’s, who is outspokenly sceptical of mothers’ rights to maternity leave. Or even Maria Miller, Women’s Minister, who has thus far remained remarkably silent on the issue of sexism within the House of Commons.
The overall picture painted post-Cull is not the most empowering one.
Lastly, the broader problem remains that female political empowerment cannot be achieved within an administration whose policies have, by and large, resulted in women being economically disadvantaged. Research carried out by the TUC and the Guardian has shown that the Coalition’s austerity measures have disproportionately affected women, in a way which has served to increase the gulf of economic prosperity between male and female. With a higher number of women than men occupying public sector posts, pay freezes and job cuts have resulted in women bearing the cost of austerity. Female joblessness in some areas of the country has risen twice as fast as male joblessness. This, combined with child benefits and tax credits becoming scarcer, has resulted in life becoming substantially trickier for working women and mothers in general. So even if we were to accept that the apparent “cull of the middle-aged white men” has empowered women, it doesn’t seem to have empowered the female British public.
In the most recent reshuffle, Cameron has failed to realise that it takes more than a handful of female ministers to empower women- either in politics or in British society more generally. With fewer strong voices in Cabinet, more women economically alienated, and just ten months left to prove to the country that they deserve five more years, the Conservative Party needs to rethink how it makes the “women problem” less problematic.