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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.


Apart from Theresa May, the three women now serving in the Cabinet
are very much on the sidelines. Post-Olympics, running the DCMS will not give
Maria Miller much room to shine; Northern Ireland, for Theresa Villiers, is
traditionally where ministers go to be kept out of the way. And Justine Greening,
being shoved aside to DfID, seems to be paying the price for wanting to keep
her promise to the electorate on Heathrow (and perhaps also for hinting at a
more hard-headed approach to the financial case for HS2.)

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.

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