Jill Kirby: David Cameron missed the opportunity to make the best of women round the Cabinet table
Did Theresa May have to fight to keep her job in the reshuffle? In an awkward interview on last night's PM programme, the Home Secretary was asked if the Prime Minister had offered her another role; sounding rather flustered, she declined to give a straight answer. Mrs May was the most senior member of the Government giving interviews throughout the day; until hearing her on PM I had assumed she had been chosen to deflect the inevitable criticism that this was not a “women-friendly” reshuffle. The possibility that she had come close to being dropped as Home Secretary threw an intriguing new light on the subject. As a vociferous advocate of more women in politics, it seems likely that Mrs May was less than thrilled with some of the Prime Minister's decisions this week. If she had to play the gender card in order to keep her own job, it's no wonder she sounded rather uncomfortable.
In 2008 David Cameron vowed to end the “scandalous under-representation” of women in government. By the end of his first term in office, he said, a third of his ministers would be female. Such a promise seemed to me both unwise and unhelpful. By setting a specific threshold, Mr Cameron risked the wrath of the feminists if he failed to meet it. But the adoption of a quota also looked demeaning to Conservative women, who would prefer to be promoted on merit. A much better course of action would have been to declare that, in contrast to Labour, any women serving in a future Conservative Cabinet would know that they were chosen on the grounds of ability, not tokenism.
As a firm opponent of quotas, therefore, I have no problem with the Prime Minister's decision yesterday to ditch under-performing women from his Cabinet - especially those whose appointment probably owed more to gender than talent in the first place. Cheryl Gillan, Caroline Spelman and Sayeeda Warsi will not be greatly missed. But I do find it slightly surprising that the Prime Minister has chosen to reduce, rather than increase, the proportion of women in his Cabinet, particularly given the number of bright and able women now on the Conservative benches. I'm also rather dismayed by the way in which he has chosen to deploy the talents of the women who remain at the Cabinet table.
Putting a handful of 2010 intake women MPs into junior ministerial roles will not enable Mr Cameron to escape the charge that he is more inclined to promote his chums than give capable women real authority. The Prime Minister has frequently been criticised for protecting his friends at the expense of good decision-making. The promotion of his close ally Jeremy Hunt to Secretary of State for Health has done nothing to dispel that impression...
Perhaps the Prime Minister believes that Mr Hunt's bright-eyed charm and post-Olympic glow will play well with women voters, whose experience of the health service is thought to be an important factor in deciding their voting intentions. Back in February, when Paul Goodman was the first to tip this appointment, Mr Hunt's star was still very much in the ascendant. Since then, however, the former Culture Secretary's well-publicised cosiness with the Murdoch empire, as well as his willingness to sacrifice a loyal political aide in order to save his own career, have shown that his ambition can sometimes impair his judgement. By promoting him to this important new role David Cameron is rewarding that ambition, but also taking a big risk, especially with the Leveson Inquiry still hanging over him. It wouldn't be the first time that Mr Cameron gave someone a second chance only to regret it later.
Rebuilding confidence in the Coalition's handling of the NHS is a daunting task and it's vital that the public see a Health Secretary they can trust, rather than just another PR man. Appointing a woman to this job might have played rather better with the voters. If the plain-speaking Justine Greening had to be cleared out of Transport, might she not have made a convincing and down-to-earth Health Secretary? Or what about the increasingly adept Maria Miller, whose handling of the disability brief has given her some insights into this thorny policy area?
Another beneficiary of the reshuffle who, like Mr Hunt, has shown no shortage of ambition is the new Party Chairman. Chosen partly because of his willingness to take to the the airwaves, the cheerful and combative Grant Shapps will no doubt be a smoother operator than Lady Warsi. His enthusiasm for Twitter appears to fit nicely with the Conservative Party's desire to reach out through use of social media. But his appointment is not risk-free. Mr Shapps' ability to generate publicity has made him some enemies; he has already been forced into denying that he retains any interest in the web sales business he set up with his wife in 2005. The Guardian, having failed to throw up enough mud to deter David Cameron from appointing this new Chairman, will no doubt redouble its efforts in an attempt to distract Mr Shapps from his new duties. And the Conservative grassroots, jaded by coalition compromises, are less likely than the Westminster village to be impressed by Twitter proficiency. Getting rid of a woman whose appointment smacked of tokenism might please them for a while, but they will be unforgiving if their bouncy new Chairman attracts too much of the wrong sort of publicity.
The Prime Minister said at the weekend that he would be using the reshuffle to reassert his authority, yet some of the moves he wanted to make appear to have been stymied by ministers unwilling to oblige. Twitter incontinence has also rather undermined that authority, with both the elevated and the disappointed releasing their news in advance of official announcements.
I'm not saying this was a wholly bad reshuffle, and there are clearly some strong appointments emerging – both male and female – at junior minister level. In the Cabinet, some poor performers have been despatched. But opportunities – including the opportunity to make the best use of women round the Cabinet table, and to dispel accusations that this is a government of chums - have been missed. Probably the Prime Minister's best hope is that his new appointees will not embarrass him, that those he has demoted will keep their counsel - and that the voting public will not even notice that a reshuffle has taken place.