By Paul Goodman
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John McTernan was political secretary to Tony Blair, and is Labour through and through: if you broke him in half like a stick of Brighton rock, you'd probably find the party's name engraved inside. When not helping out Julia Gillard in Australia, he blogs for the Daily Telegraph. I hope he doesn't stop, because he's one of their best writers – versed from the inside about how Government works, but detached enough now he's outside to be fair, and quick and sharp with it.
None the less, he read the political chessboard atrociously recently, in a piece about Ed Miliband's promotion of Labour women to the front bench. He was right to praise their qualities, but mistaken about their opponents: "What on earth is Cameron's answer?" he wrote. "I don't think he knows." This was dead wrong. The Prime Minister knows his answer very well. The promotion of Justine Greening to Transport and of Chloe Smith to the Treasury is a sign of it.
The Conservative Party could once rely on the support of women voters. In 1992, it gained 45% of it. By 2005, it had clambered back to only 32%. The events of the last Parliament helped to revive the party's position, and until last July it had a lead over Labour among women voters. As ever, everyone has their own explanations: Downing Street's is that women are more nervous than men about the effect of the spending scaleback on public services.
Everyone has their own solutions, too: David Cameron's recent initiatives on forced marriages, sexually explicit internet content, and the promotion of women to senior management positions are another bit of his, and were I in Downing Street I'd be urging him to get a grip on childcare. As ever, the Prime Minister has a presentational plan as well as a policy response (indeed, the one merges with the other). And he thought of it long before McTernan wrote his article.
Yesterday's shuffle was another step in the long march of the Tory women. Cameron said before the election that he'd aim for women to make up a third of Ministers. The Liberal Democrat Ministers restrict his room for manoevre, but get ready next May for the march to step up its pace. The Prime Minister will have to do something for those MPs who were Shadow Ministers in Opposition and didn't make it to government, but women will be a big part of his plan.
Here are some of women Conservative MPs from the new intake who can be imagined as Ministers: Nicola Blackwood, Karen Bradley, Angie Bray, Fiona Bruce, Harriet Baldwin, Therese Coffey, Tracey Crouch, Jane Ellison, Margot James, Andrea Leadsom, Charlotte Leslie, Mary Macleod, Esther McVey, Louise Mensch, Penny Mourdant, Priti Patel, Clare Perry, Amber Rudd, Laura Sandys, Anna Soubry (of course) and Elizabeth Truss. A few are friends, most aren't, and some I've never met.
Is all this tough on Tory men? Of course. (And Cameron will need to mind their morale, too.) Is it hard on Conservative women who were previously in the Commons, and who in some cases are already Ministers? Not necessarily, because some should gain promotion: Maria Miller and Theresa Villiers are two names that come to mind. Villiers, note, is number two at Transport, and Greening has been promoted over her head. I hope her Euro-sceptic views haven't counted against her.
Finally, is it wrong? My answer is: it can't be if the promotions are made on merit – and, as I say, I can see any of the MPs that I've named helping to manage a Department. One or two of them will end up running one. Dear John: don't underestimate the transformation of the Tory Parliamentary Party by the influx of new women MPs. If you do, your safety may be at risk on return from Australia. Sincerely, Paul