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.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage