Though billed as a reshuffle to boost the position of women on the front benches, a closer look suggests very little change to the record of weak representation of women in the Coalition Government. There are still just four women in Cabinet, or five if Baroness Warsi’s part time attendance is included. This is still a long way off Cameron’s aspiration that one third of his Government would be women by 2015 and puts the UK a long way down the ranking when compared internationally. With the October 2013 reshuffle, four women entered Government (Baroness Krammer, Baroness Jolly, Jane Ellison and Claire Perry) and three women left (Baroness Garden, Chloe Smith, and Baroness Hanham), meaning that overall now 23 of 128 members of government are women, or just 18%. The reshuffle did see some notable advances for women in the appointment of Nicky Morgan as Economic Secretary in the Treasury (where there had been no women for a few years), Anna Soubry as Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Ministry of Defence (the first ever female defence minister from the House of Commons) and Esther McVey as Minister of State for Employment in the Department of Work and Pensions. But four government departments – Ministry of Justice, DEFRA, Scottish Office and Cabinet Office – still have no policy input from women, and two female members of government – Baroness Warsi and Jo Swinson – are split between two departments.
This static picture of women’s representation in UK government is, we would argue, unlikely to change much between now and 2015 – despite Cameron’s recent decision that he is a feminist after all. Ahead of the next election we might expect to see further promotions and the elevation of some women now at Minister of State to join the cabinet, but it seems increasingly unlikely that Cameron will be able to meet the target of one third female representation. He is hampered by his own party whose selectorate disliked the strategy of a gender balanced A List and did not select women to contest winnable seats. The result is that the pool of women MPs from which Cameron can select and promote talent into government office is small – just 16% of all Tory MPs. Cameron can boost his supply of prospective ministers by awarding portfolios to members of the Lords – indeed now 30% of women in government are Baronesses not MPs.
Cameron’s failure to promote women to government – whether through unwillingness or inability – is not merely a question of image. It is likely to have severe electoral consequences for the Conservatives come 2015. As we have argued before, low numbers of women in government office (and their complete absence from some departments) is part of the reason why the Coalition’s policy offer for women has been weak, with evidence of the detrimental effect of austerity on female jobs, benefit cuts and services heavily used by women growing by the month. This in turn accounts for much of the collapse of women’s support for the Tories, regularly expressed in opinion polls.
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