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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.