PMQs review: Miliband pounces on the Tories' women problem

The coalition made the Labour leader's point for him as it fielded an entirely male frontbench.

Rarely have the Tories gifted Ed Miliband a better attack line than today. A few days after the deselection of Anne McIntosh MP and the removal of Sally Morgan as chair of Ofsted (prompting Harriet Harman to declare "it's like raining men in the Tory party"), the government made the error of fielding an entirely male frontbench at today's PMQs. After sardonically asking Cameron how his vow to "lead on women's equality" was "going in the Conservative Party", it did not take Miliband long to seize on this point.  

"Mr Speaker, I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words," he quipped, and the camera panned to confirm his point. "I guess they didn’t let women into the Bullingdon Club either. He said a third of his ministers would be women, he’s nowhere near his target. In his cabinet, there are as many men who went to Eton or Westminster as there are women. Does he think it’s his fault that his party has a problem with women?"

After that, it no longer mattered what Cameron said in his defence: the image of an all-male frontbench (with McIntosh, ironically, one of just two women visible behind Cameron) will play terribly for the Tories on the news tonight. Labour, by contrast, had ensured that it had more women (10) than men (9) on its frontbench. 

In response, Cameron played the Thatcher card, boasting that it was his party that had the first (and only) female prime minister. But 24 years on from her resignation, this risks just reminding voters how little progress the Tories have made since (just 16 per cent of Conservative MPs are women compared to 31 per cent of Labour's). It also allowed Miliband to repeat his retort of choice whenever Cameron mentions a former Conservative PM: "unlike him, she was a Tory leader who won general elections". 

After this, elevating the issue above mere tokenism, he came to his key point: "the reason representation matters is because it shapes the policies a government introduces". Miliband noted that the gender pay gap had increased for the first time in five years as a result of the minimum wage losing value, the rise of zero hour contracts and the childcare crisis. "He runs his government like an old boys network!", he concluded. 

Throughout the exchange, Cameron gave the impression of wanting to talk about anything else: the Bellwin scheme to help flood-hit councils, the tube strike, Labour's Falkirk selection. But all attempts to change the subject were bound to fail as he stood before that remorselessly male frontbench.

Ed Miliband highlights the government's all-male frontbench at today's PMQs.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.