The Lib Dems should elect a female deputy leader to address their woman problem

With just seven female MPs and no female cabinet ministers, the party needs to raise the profile of its women at Westminster.

While the world feigns indifference at the news that there is to be a new deputy leader of the Lib Dems, following Simon Hughes's elevation into government (pretend all you like, but I know you care really), the party is buzzing with speculation about who will get the nod.

It’s a limited field – essentially Lib Dem MPs who are not part of the government– and already several names are being mooted. The right are pushing Jeremy Browne and already have a #teamjezza hashtag running. The left are pushing the activists' favourite, Julian Huppert. Everyone’s wondering if Tim Farron will have another go (and if he needs the bother). And of course there’s the endless amusement the election of Nick Harvey would provide, given it does appear Nick Clegg is not his absolute favourite person. What fun their daily catch-ups would be.

But all of those folk, and most of the other names getting mentioned in dispatches – Duncan Hames, Stephen Gilbert, Andrew George  - have one thing in common. They’re blokes.

Now, it’s easy to overstate the Lib Dems' 'women issue'. After all, we have numerous highly effective female ministers (Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone, Susan Kramer). We have some fantastically talented women in the party outside Westminster like Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Welsh Lib Dems or Sharon Bowles MEP, the first Liberal to chair the EU Economic and Monetary Affairs committee. And in candidates like Jane Dodds, Kelly-Marie Blundell and Layla Moran, we have accomplished women standing in winnable seats.

But the fact remains that just seven of our 57 MPs are women (two of whom are standing down in 2015) and we haven’t put a women into the cabinet since taking office. We need to find ways of raising the profile of women in the party in Westminster.

What a brilliant opportunity this is take a step in that direction – and elect one of the two eligible women MPs who could stand for the deputy leader role – Tessa Munt or Lorely Burt. Both are highly respected amongst the grassroots. Both would benefit from the boost in profile the job provides (and let’s not forget they are defending sub-1,000 majorities). And in one fair swoop, we’d have a future female leadership candidate in place. It seems a fair swap for the PPS roles they both currently fulfil.

There’ll be a lot of politics going on right now in Westminster, with soundings being taken and promises made. But I hope Tessa or Lorely grab the chance to stand. And I hope one of them wins.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg with Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt at an election rally in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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