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Cameron’s own backbenches land deadlier blows on him than Labour

A growing number of Tory MPs don’t believe Cameron’s way can work – a prophecy that fulfils itself.

David Cameron doesn’t lurch. It isn’t his style. When presented with the view that the newly shuffled government has turned abruptly to the right, the Prime Minister’s allies point out that no policies have changed. They insist that ministerial hirings and firings were months in gestation and painstakingly choreographed; definitely not a lurch. “Maybe a gentle sashay,” concedes one top Cameroon.

Some appointments advertised themselves as balm for irritable backbenchers. Chris Grayling, now Justice Secretary, makes pugnacious noises about the European Union, immigration and welfare that sound melodious to his party’s ear. Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary, is another anti-European and has been pointedly sceptical about renewable energy. (Wind turbines compete with Brussels as the chief target of shire Tory rage.)

Paterson’s elevation is seen by Lib Dems as an affront to the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, whose department is supposed to lead on climate change. A greenish streak, measured by increased investment in low-carbon energy, is one of the few distinguishing marks that the junior coalition party still hopes to leave on the government’s record. Senior Lib Dems accuse George Osborne of obstructing them in that goal. In private, the Chancellor is said to speak with contempt for the legal rules that commit the UK to reducing toxic emissions, seeing them as a burden on industry.

Hostile briefings

Osborne’s fingerprints were all over the re­shuffle. The transfer of Justine Greening from Transport has widely been interpreted as a sign of frustration at her opposition to expanding Heathrow Airport. Her independence on that point felt like ingratitude to the Chancellor for past patronage. The move was accompanied by hostile briefings about Greening’s competence and un-collegiate attitude. The unspoken message: “we created you; we can destroy you”.

The crudeness of the attempt to assert central authority, more than any ideological shift, is what most Tories see as the defining feature of the reshuffle. “It was clearly a consolidation of the Chancellor’s power,” says one MP. Friends of Cameron and Osborne were given jobs at the expense of able incumbents. Good ministers were punished for exclusion from the leader’s club – or so it is said on the back benches. Grumbling of that nature is inevitable, since there are never enough jobs for everyone, but Downing Street has spawned twin resentments. Dissenters still feel their views are not adequately represented; loyalists feel passed over.

A small but resolute minority of Conservative MPs are beyond reconciliation with Cameron’s leadership. One No 10 source estimates that around 40 backbenchers are “already in opposition”. That is approaching the critical mass needed to trigger a leadership contest.

It is on the economy that most Tory hopes of a truer blue surge were pinned in the reshuffle. There were cheers for the insertion of Michael Fallon, a veteran of the Thatcher government, into the Business Department – seen as a haven of Lib Dem sedition. Fallon is there to stoke the bonfire of regulations Vince Cable is accused of neglecting. Also now flanking Cable as a junior minister is Matthew Hancock, an Osborne avatar from the 2010 parliamentary cohort.

But here, too, the movement is less lurching than it first looked. Fallon’s first pronouncements in his new job have indeed been lusty battle cries against the scourge of red tape. Then, on 11 September, Cable emerged with a “new industrial policy” – support for small businesses through a state investment bank and targeted intervention to support sectors likely to deliver growth. He denounced the “laissez-faire” doctrine of free-market ideologues. Thatcherite dogmatists blanched.

Labour attacked Cable’s announcement as a paltry imitation of their own plans, punted by a dissident minister without Downing Street support. The second part of that charge is just wrong. Recognition of the need for more activist government to spur growth has been brewing inside No 10 and the Treasury for months. The case has also been made by David Willetts, another of Cable’s Tory colleagues at the Business Department. Michael Heseltine, torch-bearer for the interventionist strain of Conservatism, has been advising Cameron. One senior Tory policymaker even talks approvingly of the “strategic state” envisaged by Peter Mandelson, Labour’s last business secretary, as a corrective to the cult of laissez faire.

Economic horizon

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will never say aloud that they are working on a “Plan B”, having failed to jump-start growth with budgetary aggression. Plainly, they are. Alongside the new industrial strategy are plans to boost spending on infrastructure – a stimulus measure fuelled by more borrowing. There are reports that the Treasury is poised to drop its target for containing the national debt by 2015.  

That isn’t to say Cameron and Osborne will succeed in changing course or get much credit if they do. They are trapped by their record of intransigent rhetoric and by their party, which baulks at even token gestures away from ultra-Conservative orthodoxy. But there is time before an election for the economic horizon to brighten and for the Chancellor to say that his decisions made it happen.

Labour consistently overestimate Cameron and Osborne’s intellectual rigidity. All the evidence shows they change their minds with ease. The U-turn is their most practised manoeuvre. Ed Miliband likes to attack the Prime Minister for what Labour imagines him to believe. Conservative MPs have the better measure of their leader, disliking him for not really believing in anything at all.

Cameron’s lack of a creed was once an asset. It persuaded many voters that he was a reasonable man, distinct from the fanaticism of old Tory caricature. It flummoxed Labour. But the gap has gone too long unfilled. The path to a governing purpose has been too meandering; no lurches, just a sashaying sequence of tactics to grab and hold power, accompanied with a complacent expectation that the party will tag along. But a growing number of MPs don’t believe Cameron’s way can work – a prophecy that fulfils itself. Whenever Tories pop up to say their leader is fumbling in the dark for answers, they obstruct the Downing Street searchlights. The louder they call Cameron a loser, the truer it becomes.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.