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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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