Rarely have the Tories gifted Ed Miliband a better attack line than today. A few days after the deselection of Anne McIntosh MP and the removal of Sally Morgan as chair of Ofsted (prompting Harriet Harman to declare “it’s like raining men in the Tory party”), the government made the error of fielding an entirely male frontbench at today’s PMQs. After sardonically asking Cameron how his vow to “lead on women’s equality” was “going in the Conservative Party”, it did not take Miliband long to seize on this point.
“Mr Speaker, I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words,” he quipped, and the camera panned to confirm his point. “I guess they didn’t let women into the Bullingdon Club either. He said a third of his ministers would be women, he’s nowhere near his target. In his cabinet, there are as many men who went to Eton or Westminster as there are women. Does he think it’s his fault that his party has a problem with women?”
After that, it no longer mattered what Cameron said in his defence: the image of an all-male frontbench (with McIntosh, ironically, one of just two women visible behind Cameron) will play terribly for the Tories on the news tonight. Labour, by contrast, had ensured that it had more women (10) than men (9) on its frontbench.
In response, Cameron played the Thatcher card, boasting that it was his party that had the first (and only) female prime minister. But 24 years on from her resignation, this risks just reminding voters how little progress the Tories have made since (just 16 per cent of Conservative MPs are women compared to 31 per cent of Labour’s). It also allowed Miliband to repeat his retort of choice whenever Cameron mentions a former Conservative PM: “unlike him, she was a Tory leader who won general elections”.
After this, elevating the issue above mere tokenism, he came to his key point: “the reason representation matters is because it shapes the policies a government introduces”. Miliband noted that the gender pay gap had increased for the first time in five years as a result of the minimum wage losing value, the rise of zero hour contracts and the childcare crisis. “He runs his government like an old boys network!”, he concluded.
Throughout the exchange, Cameron gave the impression of wanting to talk about anything else: the Bellwin scheme to help flood-hit councils, the tube strike, Labour’s Falkirk selection. But all attempts to change the subject were bound to fail as he stood before that remorselessly male frontbench.