Attack of the Token Women

By Kite, Melissa | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Attack of the Token Women


Kite, Melissa, The Spectator


The PM doesn't want the new women in his cabinet to do anything but look nice

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Ask anyone who really knows David Cameron and they will tell you he likes a certain kind of woman. He has a very specific type, the Prime Minister. It is almost spooky the way all his women conform to it.

They are all attractive, accomplished, articulate and well-dressed. But there is something else that makes certain women irresistible to Mr Cameron. While giving the appearance of being feisty and uncompromising, his sort of woman usually seems to know when to fall into line.

I am not speaking of romantic conquests, but of the type of woman the Prime Minister likes to promote. Mr Cameron has an eye, like Tony Blair before him, for a good physical specimen -- perfectly blow-dried, impeccably styled. But he most appreciates the kind of girl who doesn't have too strong an urge to get something particular accomplished. She must not be too wedded to a specific area of expertise, experience or knowledge.

This is because it is extremely important that a female minister be ready to drop everything at any given moment and go to wherever the Prime Minister needs her to go on the cabinet re-shuffle chessboard. She should ideally be able to conveniently forget, for example, that for years she has been an expert in education. She should be prepared to dust off her Hunter wellies and pretend to have an instinctive feel for farming as the PM packs her off to Defra.

She will be expected to go at any time to any place, any department in Whitehall. Regardless of where her talents ought to be sending her, she is headed for a department that is considered too male, too pale, too stale. Her mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to act as a decoy.

Virtually nowhere in British life does this method of using women to balance the look of an organisation exist any more. When he reshuffles his cabinet by quota, Cameron is being sexist in a way that has largely died out in every other walk of our nation's life.

As women routinely break through the glass ceiling purely on their merits, in arenas from banking and law to engineering and information technology, Cameron presides over the last bastion of soft misogyny.

Maybe this is because he is the sort of old-fashioned Tory who deep down, in spite of the rhetoric about valuing women for their abilities, believes that a woman's place is in the PR strategy. Women are there for presentational reasons: to sex things up, to add pizzazz, to style things out. When times are good, you hardly ever see one promoted. When times are tough, when the polls are downward, when an election year is imminent, he performs a massive landslide of a reshuffle, shifting out the stale and male to make way for the blonde blow-dries and the Vivienne Westwood outfits, and resulting in the sort of carefully choreographed headlines we saw this week: a third of tories in the cabinet now women!

As such, the sooner the women promoted in this latest reshuffle get used to the harsh reality, the better: they are seen by the PM as tokens.

It wouldn't be so bad if the tokenism worked, if it resulted in the promotion of women who genuinely made a difference to the way the government connected with real people. But one could argue that after the latest purge of 'male and pale', the cabinet has become even more dominated by a metropolitan elite. Out go a few of the men who have limited grasp of the concerns of working families, in come a raft of women who exist almost exclusively in the Westminster bubble.

This is because in his search for women who will look good, sound smart but make minimal fuss behind the scenes, Mr Cameron often opts for politicos: newly promoted Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt, for example, are both seasoned ex-Tory press officers. They understand putting loyalty and strategy on a par with, or even ahead of, substance and policy.

In fact, if you consider the loss of Hague and Gove, the balance of people who are genuinely in touch with Middle Britons and know what it is to come up the hard way has actually shifted in favour of the privileged with this reshuffle. …

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