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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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