When the the Daily Mail published its infamous ‘catwalk’ spread of newly promoted female ministers, it was assumed that this was just the un-PC tabloid up to its old tricks. It later emerged that the catwalk idea had been briefed out by Downing Street spin doctors.
Then came the controversy over Lady Stowell’s appointment as Leader of the Lords. There’s nothing wrong with the noble (and highly capable) baroness, but in paying her less than her male predecessor – and denying her a place in the Cabinet – the Prime Minister not only insulted the Lords, but the every woman in the country.
Thus a reshuffle that was supposed to show a female-friendly face to the electorate turned into a sexist farce worthy of the Carry On films.
Oddly, the most senior woman in the Cabinet – Theresa May – didn’t feature in the reshuffle at all. According to a fascinating FT Magazine profile by George Parker and Helen Warrell, this was no accident:
“After two remarkable months in which the home secretary has added an unpredictable ruthlessness to her political armoury, the prime minister and his allies are both respectful and wary of May, the most powerful Conservative woman since Margaret Thatcher. ‘One of the central principles of the reshuffle was that Theresa must not be promoted,’ says one official close to Cameron.”
The article is stuffed full of interesting nuggets, including a simple fact that is often overlooked:
“Theresa Mary May… is one of just two Conservative women to rise this far in British politics. Margaret Thatcher is the only other Tory woman to have occupied one of the four ‘great offices of state’: prime minister, foreign secretary, chancellor, home secretary.”
Now the longest serving Home Secretary for half-a-century, May looks set to extend this record because according to Parker and Warrell, her current bosses dare not move her:
“Her success makes her an intriguing figure at the top of his government: too popular with Tory activists to demote, too dangerous to promote.”
If Downing Street does suspect her of being “on manoeuvres,” she has given them very little cause to do so – other than having the temerity to rise up the rankings in the ConservativeHome leadership survey (which gets a mention in the article).
Of course, when you can’t touch your main target, standard procedure is to go after the people around her:
“The pugnacious Fiona Cunningham, who defended May against attacks from fellow Tory ministers, resigned last month in the wake of the Gove spat but she retains Nick Timothy, who provides her with a political edge. ‘It’s very hard to square this calm, cool, thoughtful, reserved, enigmatic person with these incredibly tribal special advisers,’ says one Home Office insider. ‘It’s like an alter ego really. They play a role that she doesn’t play or can’t play.’”
‘Loyal’ might be a better word here than ‘tribal’ – because defending a minister from outside attacks in precisely what special advisers are meant to do. In Theresa May’s case the defensive posture isn’t just required on isolated issues, but to protect an overall approach to government that differs fundamentally from the panicky fits-and-starts that characterise the Downing Street style of getting things done (or not done).
If there’s one major fault with what Parker and Warrell have written, it’s that they over-emphasise the continuities in the Theresa May story. For instance, some earlier events such as the ‘nasty party’ speech or the attention paid to her leopard-print shoes are recounted as if they pre-figured her bold reforms to the police service. There is no relationship between the part she once played in the shallow, image-obsessed ‘modernisation’ of the Conservative Party and the real change she has worked for as Home Secretary.
The most interesting thing about Theresa May is that she is the leopard who changed her spots. She has made mistakes in the past and no doubt will make others in the future, but unlike most of her colleagues they won’t be the same mistakes repeated over and over again.
When measured against the consistent inconsistency of David Cameron’s style of leadership, and the culture of government that surrounds him, there couldn’t be a clearer contrast.