Nicky Morgan, the new minister for women. Photo: Getty
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In Nicky Morgan, David Cameron has just appointed a Minister For Straight Women

Loughborough MP voted against gay marriage, prompting the question: so is she just Minister For Straight Women?

The fall of Maria Miller has created two vacancies, because she held two Cabinet-level posts - one as secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, and another as minister for Women and Equalities. (Our blogger Jonn Elledge describes this as Miller being "minister for low Tory priorities"). 

As I said on Woman's Hour on Monday, it's fair to say Miller didn't make a big splash as minister for women. She spearheaded a Guide for Girls about aspirational careers, and an initiative to promote childcare for business - although this was sold, to make it palatable to Tories, as being about "economic reality, not political correctness". But the major feminist initiatives of this parliament, such as the work against FGM, the campaign for compulsory sex and relationships education to include the teaching of consent, and the attempts to raise awareness of airbrushing and body image issues, all originated either with backbenchers or were championed by other departments. Miller, who described herself as a "very modern feminist", laid her cards on the table just weeks after being appointed when she said she personally supported a reduction in the upper limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 20. There would be no bra-burning in her department. 

Miller inherited the women and equalities portfolio from Theresa May, who had juggled it alongside the Home Office - an indication of how much time the Tories thought should be devoted to it. She ended up spending far more time on the equalities section, by spearheading the same-sex marriage legislation through an occasionally rebellious Commons. Prior to her appointment, her record on LGBT issues was mixed - she voted in favour of fertility clinics taking into account "a child's need for a father and a mother", for example. But even her critics are full of praise for her handling of gay marriage (if only the same could be said of Leveson).

Miller's departure dropped the number of women in Cabinet to three (four if you include Sayeeda Warsi, who has the right to attend but not full membership). She was also the only mother. That presented a clear PR problem for David Cameron: he knows that the Conservatives trail Labour more heavily among female voters, in a reversal of the pre-2005 position, and that there isn't much room for "wimmin's issues" in the Lynton Crosby-driven narrow campaigning focus until the next election. 

That's probably why the women and equalities brief wasn't shuffled off to one of the two remaining senior women who haven't yet had a crack at it: Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening. Cameron must have known he couldn't let the total number of women attending Cabinet drop (it already compares unfavourably to the number of cabinet ministers who went to the same Oxford college, Magdalen - four; and the number of men called David - three). And it's also worth noting that neither Villiers nor Greening is in high favour with Number 10.

So, a woman had to be found. But despite widespread rumours that Maria Miller's whole portfolio might get handed over to Liz Truss or Esther McVey, who are currently ministers at sub-Cabinet level, the DCMS brief was instead given to Osborne henchman Sajid Javid. Nicky Morgan moved a step up at the Treasury to take Javid's old role as financial secretary, so it must have seemed reasonable to give her the rest of Miller's old brief. (Even the Tories, I think, would blush to make a dude the Minister For Women.) As a bonus, Morgan has a six-year-old son, so avoiding a Motherless Cabinet. 

Only . . .  uh oh. A quick look at Morgan's voting record reveals that it's even more "mixed" on equalities than Miller's was. She voted against gay marriage in 2013, telling her local newspaper:

“... this is a very big social change. There have been plenty of little changes down the years but what’s never been changed is that the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman. I think that was one of the issues people, especially those who asked me to vote against, found hardest to accept and it also tied in with my own Christian faith too. I totally support civil partnerships and that same-sex relationships are recognised in law. But marriage, to me, is between a man and a woman."

The website TheyWorkForYou records Morgan's voting record as being "moderately against" gay rights legislation overall.  

Just as you can't have a man as minister for women, so it would be impossible to have a minister for equalities who didn't believe that gay people shouldn't have the equal right to marry. Particularly as David Cameron has made gay marriage a flagship part of his otherwise-etiolated "modernisation" agenda. And so the equalities brief, unloved and unwanted, gets rolled back into Javid's DCMS brief. (Incidentally, that means he is still the most senior minister in charge of women...)

Oh, and let's put aside for the moment the existence of lesbians, as we now have a minister for women who thinks that they don't deserve the same rights as straight women. Mischevious journalists are already asking how that particular split is going to work:

What a farce. I can't help feeling that if the Tories are so unenthused about having a Cabinet-level role devoted to equalities, they should just scrap it. All this hokey cokey is a bit undignified, isn't it? It makes the minister for women role look tokenistic, and the equalities brief look like an afterthought. And I can't see Morgan having much clout at Cabinet to pipe up and say things like: "Hang on, chaps, have any of you considered that more women work in the public sector?" Maybe they should have just given the whole lot to Ken Clarke. 

I hope to be proved wrong, and that Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan prove adept advocates for women and gay people. But it's hard to shake the feeling that they know full well that they have been given ultimately pointless roles as Ministers for Low Tory Priorities. As for David Cameron, he has turned what could have been a very straightforward reshuffle into a chance for everyone to notice how few women there are at the top of the Tory party - and how many of his own party opposed gay marriage.

 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.