Last November, Boris Johnson became the first Tory leader to endorse the goal of a Parliament containing equal numbers of men and women.

A month after he contributed his promise of support, the following letter appeared in The Times:

Sir, After Boris Johnson’s enthusiastic conversion to a 50:50 gender-balanced parliament, announced in a video on November 20, I looked eagerly for evidence in the latest list of peerages. As the prime minister said: “There is one first that is still long overdue and that is the moment when — for the first time — we finally achieve 50:50 in our parliament.”

Parliament, of course, includes the House of Lords, where even today 92 seats are reserved exclusively for men because of primogeniture. Thanks to our appointments system it would have been easy for the prime minister to appoint only women and improve the proportion (27 per cent) of women on the Conservative benches. However, his list included six men and two women for the Tory benches, taking the total announced since he became prime minister to 22 men and six women. Not even a nod in the direction of the 50:50 parliament.

As the prime minister said in that message four weeks ago, we need more women in parliament “not just because it is about the oldest and most powerful of all political ideas — the equality of all human beings in dignity and rights — though it certainly is about that. It is because, as I passionately believe, if you give men and women the same opportunities you will solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”

I couldn’t agree more.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington
Co-chair, Women2Win House of Lords

It is generally recognised that the dynamic and resourceful Lady Jenkin, who with Theresa May set up Women2Win in 2005, has done more than anyone else to increase the number of Conservative women MPs, by encouraging capable women to come forward and helping them to become parliamentarians.

The party’s contingent of women MPs, which after the 2005 general election stood at 17, increased to 49 in 2010 and 68 in 2015, fell back to 67 in 2017 and is today at 87, just under a quarter of the total, which stands at 365.

Just over half of Labour MPs – 104 out of 202 – are women. So if that is the way the world is going, the Conservatives are still a long way behind.

Nor is the gap likely to be closed without anyone having to do anything much about it. Supposing at the next general election about 50 or 60 Conservative MPs, mostly men, decide the time has come to retire, it seems unlikely that more than half of their replacements will be women, so only another 25 or 30, which means parity will still be a long way off.

Meanwhile in Scotland, highly qualified women have this week been placed too low on the regional party lists to have any hope of election, while in Wales, women have also fallen back.

On Monday, ConHome asked Lady Jenkin if she thinks Johnson means what he says when he endorses the 50:50 target. She said:

“I think he genuinely means it, but I don’t think he’s given any thought to how it happens, because he’s been very busy.”

Johnson devotes enormous energy to demonstrating that even on issues like the NHS, or the prosperity of voters in the Red Wall seats, or gender equality, where Labour might at least be assumed to have its heart in the right place, the Conservatives can be relied on not only to have the right feelings but to be hard at work implementing effectual plans for reform.

He noted at an early stage in his career that “the trouble with Tory associations is that they don’t groove to chicks”. But where were his effectual plans for reform?

As Mayor of London, he became, as Nimco Ali has related, an opponent of female genital mutilation, before that cause became fashionable.

As Foreign Secretary, he cast around for a cause he might champion, and came up with 12 years of education for every girl worldwide, a cause he will be promoting during Britain’s presidency of the G7.

As Prime Minister, he celebrated International Women’s Day with a reception at Downing Street, held in early March 2020, just before the pandemic rendered such occasions impossible, and reported upon by Hattie Brett for Grazia:

“‘Do you believe men and women are equal?’ the Prime Minister bellowed at one point…no prizes for guessing what the audience of 50 girls from five schools around the country, businesswomen and his new fiancée bellowed back.

In a state room overlooked by a painting of Ada Lovelace, the female mathematician credited with realising the full potential of the modern-day computer, Boris Johnson went on to underline a pledge he made as Foreign Secretary: that his government is committed to providing 12 years of quality education for all girls, in the UK and around the world.

‘Let’s make sure that every girl in the world gets the same investment, same care, same love, same attention in her education as every boy in the world,’ he said. ‘This is the best way to help economies grow, tackle poverty, prevent early marriage and empower women. It is the single most important utensil at the disposal of humanity to change all our lives for the better.’”

As an earnest of his sincerity, Johnson appointed Lady Sugg as the UK’s first ever Special Envoy for Girls’ Education. Sugg declared:

“Today around 130 million girls worldwide are being denied the right to an education, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. Girls are kept out of school due to poverty, the threat of violence and because often, girls are simply not valued as much as boys. This tragic waste of potential must end.

“Giving girls the chance to learn is not only the right thing to do, it’s one of the smartest investments we can make with UK aid.”

But in November, Lady Sugg resigned as Special Envoy, and Minister for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, in protest at cuts in the aid budget.

Those cuts jar with the Prime Minister’s long-standing commitment to girls’ education worldwide.

As Lady Jenkin has observed, he has a direct role in appointments to the House of Lords. If he wishes, he could demonstrate his commitment to gender equality by recommending only women for peerages until the Conservative Party had attained gender equality in that house.

But to do so would be to refrain from using, as a means of control over men, one of the richest sources of patronage he possesses.

Puritans disapprove of patronage, but it is the principal power possessed by any Prime Minister.

Many men who believe themselves to be in line for a peerage might withhold their support from Johnson, or refrain from donating funds, if they were told they must abandon hope of obtaining that bauble.

A “women only for the House of Lords ” policy would open the Prime Minister to the charge of allowing political correctness to run mad.

He would also expose himself to bitter reproaches if he were to support a compulsory retirement age for peers of 80, which would change the balance of the house by clearing out around 160 mostly male peers.

One suspects that Johnson will prefer to get his spokeswoman to insist, as she did this week, that he is a feminist, who will soon reshuffle his Cabinet, which at present contains five women, in order to admit one or two more.

For his Commons majority, Johnson will continue, for the foreseeable future, to rely on the votes of men as well as women. He will be aware that if, in order to attain gender equality, he denies male MPs, no matter how gifted, all hope of promotion to ministerial office, he could very soon find his own position in danger.

So although Johnson is a fervent believer in gender equality, one may surmise that he will be unable to attain it in the immediate future even within his own party.

He is, however, reported to be considering scrapping primogeniture, a reform which would in time ensure that about half the 92 hereditary peers who remain in the Lords were women.

Here is a change which would demonstrate the Prime Minister’s staunch commitment to equality, and essentially modern outlook, without impairing his powers of patronage.