The Prime Minister greets his "woman problem". Photo: Getty
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Does David Cameron have a "woman problem"?

Yvette Cooper makes great play of David Cameron's "woman problem", but it's Labour's "man problem" she should be worried about.

Yvette Cooper – increasingly regarded as the frontrunner for the Labour leadership – has a neat applause line about David Cameron having a “woman problem”. 

It’s smart politics: it references an achievement around which a majority of Labour activists can agree is a Good Thing (increasing the number of women MPs), reminds people of one of Cameron’s worst performances in the House of Commons (the “Calm down, dear” jibe at Angela Eagle), and strengthens her case to be elected Labour leader. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.

In 1992, Labour were defeated by women, who preferred John Major to Neil Kinnock by a ten-point margin. If women had been the only voters, the Conservatives would have a majority of over 70, against a mere 20 on the night. In 1997, under Tony Blair, the party led by 12 points among women – still slightly smaller than the 14-point lead among men. In 2001 Labour performed equally well among women voters as it did with men.  

But by the time of Blair’s third election victory, the process had gone into reverse. Labour started to do disproportionately badly among male voters. If men had been the only voters, Labour and the Conservatives would have been level on votes, with 34 per cent apiece, although Labour would have remained comfortably ahead in terms of seats. Among women, however, the party had a six point lead, 38 per cent to 32 per cent.

Worse was to come:  in 2010, the Conservatives had a ten-point lead among men, enough to put them in office.  Women, however, backed Labour by 31 per cent to 36 per cent. In 2015, Labour again underperformed among men, achieving just 30 per cent of the vote.

Labour can’t even be said to be doing particularly well among all women; the over 55s opted for the Conservatives by an even bigger margin than their male peers (45 per cent to 27 per cent, against 40 per cent to 25 per cent among men).

That’s not to say that it would be a bad idea for Labour to pick a woman as leader. After all, the party’s forward strides among female voters occurred with a male leader – and the collapse with male voters in 2005, 2010, 2015 occured under three leaders who were all men. But it is to say that if Labour wraps itself in comforting slogans about Cameron’s “woman problem”, it will lose the 2020 election.

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

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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