Wonky women

The political agenda is increasingly being set by women from leading research organisations. Poorly

"A brilliant woman is a plague," lamented Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "A plague to her husband, her children, her friends, her valet, everyone." Rous seau would not be happy if he cast his eye over the think tanks of the centre left today, as they are experiencing an epidemic of femininity.

So complete is the feminisation of progressive think-tank leadership that when Jennifer Moses, former head of the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank CentreForum, was scooped into the new Downing Street talent pool last month, interest was sparked in her nationality (American), her party allegiance (non-Labour) and her Goldman Sachs-generated wealth (gigantic) - but not her gender. Meanwhile, Demos is run by Catherine Fieschi; the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is co-directed by Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim on a job-share basis; and the Social Market Foundation is run by Ann Rossiter. At least on the non-Tory side, all the top wonks are women.

This feminisation is, in part, a simple reflection of the general rise of women in public life. "Part of it is purely statistical," says Fieschi. "There are simply more women in public positions." But Fieschi, and others, think there may be more to it than that. These organisations are important ideas factories for progressive politics, but are also independent organisations at some distance from the dysfunctional, tribal, macho culture of Westminster and Downing Street. As such, they provide perfect platforms for women who want to make an impact on politics without having to play the boys' games.

"The kinds of demands that being a special adviser makes on your life are ones that women in particular might reject," suggests Oppenheim. "A think-tank role gives you more control over your time." Journalism and research organi sations also provide perches for high-profile women such as Polly Toynbee at the Guardian and Julia Unwin, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

"It is a cause for celebration to see women in these jobs," says Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights. "But if you look at Downing Street or even the cabinet, where the number of women has actually fallen, you see that governmental power remains mostly male."

Access to key government jobs still appears to require a Y chromosome. Moses will be one of the very few women in Gordon Brown's No 10, alongside Oona King, the former MP with the tough task of making the government more female-friendly.

The rise of the wonky women can also be seen as part of the evolution of the think tanks themselves. The principal progressive think tanks have been through three stages, suggests Fieschi. The first stage was a "blue-sky" period, when idealistic directors were encouraged to think boldly about a progressive future. James Cornford, the first director of IPPR, was an academic by background and a marvellous iconoclast. He cared little for what ministers, or shadow ministers, thought. But this was at a point when Labour had been out of power for three terms, and was keen to demonstrate that it was fizzing with ideas about how to make the nation better.

The second stage came in parallel with Lab our's terms in office. With the party securely in power, the priority for centre-left think tanks was to provide realistic, grounded, sensible policy advice. This technocratic era was unsurprisingly marked by a revolving-door relationship between the think tanks and the government. Geoff Mulgan, the founding head of Demos, went on to run the prime minister's Strategy Unit and then the No 10 Policy Unit; Phil Collins, a former director of the Social Market Foundation, became chief speechwriter to Tony Blair.

IPPR acted as a training college for Labour politicians and advisers. Patricia Hewitt, a former deputy director, became an MP and then cabinet minister. So did David Mili band. And James Purnell. Miliband was formerly Blair's head of policy, and that job was subsequently filled by Matthew Taylor, who had previously run IPPR. It is now held by Dan Corry, IPPR's former head of economics. Indeed, to list the number of IPPR staff who have worked for a Labour government, or vice versa, would take the rest of this article. (And yes, to declare an interest, me too.) Chris Powell, when chairman of trustees of the IPPR, boasted that IPPR actually had two departments: the research and development section in Southampton Street (the think tank's HQ) and the "applied department" in government itself.

Now, however, the progressive think tanks are entering a third stage, one resembling the first in its emphasis on free thinking. Now that Labour's hold on power is tenuous the rules have changed again. The value of ideas has risen, both for a government in desperate need of intellectual reju venation and for an opposition anxious to prove itself fresh, modern and ready to govern.

This requires a different style of leadership, and especially a greater openness to work across party lines. It is likely that this would be happening under male leadership, although perhaps to a lesser extent. "Let's be honest - it is partly a reflection of the political situation," admits Fieschi. "Having said that, I do think that women may be slightly better at handling ambiguity, acting as critical friends, and perhaps working with different partners in a different way."

Oppenheim agrees, though she is wary of being too deterministic about the gender element. "I think there is a likelihood that women are more consensual in their approach, and less bound to a particular political party." The job-share arrangement at IPPR (unprecedented in UK think tanks) is itself a powerful symbol. "Lisa and I are often asked how we can possibly share leadership," she says. "It is a different way of leading, and for us it is a very powerful one."

One of the other factors reducing the level of tribalism in the think tanks is the career stages and ambitions of the new breed of women leaders. According to Fieschi: "The women who run these think tanks have no ambition to end up in the government's Strategy Unit. They have either already been in government, or have no interest in being in government."

It is certainly true that Rossiter, Oppenheim and Harker have all been government advisers, but they can now be considered as in the post-hack, rather than pre-hack, stages of their careers. Consequently, these female leaders have more latitude. They tremble less when a Labour minister rings to complain about a critical report.

As a result, the Conservatives, energetically triangulating to prove their changed condition, are mustard-keen to work with the centre-left think tanks. IPPR submitted substantial evidence to the Conservative "quality of life" task force, is working with the Liberal Democrats on immigration and is trying to build a cross-party consensus on climate change. Demos, while anchored in progressive politics, is also less prescriptive about where it is to be found: "I am quite happy to work with Steve Hilton [David Cameron's key strategist]," says Fieschi.

IPPR had a major presence at the Conservative party conference for the first time last year. Demos is taking a more dramatic step away from party politics and eschewing the drunken party conference scene altogether. Instead, there will be Demos events at the Hay and other literary and cultural festivals around the country. For Fieschi, shaping radical ideas and building a consensus for progressive change is now a more subtle and complex game that reaches far beyond political party.

In 1997, the era of the Blair Babes, it seemed as if politics itself might be on the cusp of a new, more feminine era. It hasn't quite worked out like that; women are in short supply in senior government roles. But they have scaled the commanding heights of the progressive intellectual powerhouses. Rather than being a "plague", these brilliant women may be the medicine that progressive politics urgently needs.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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