The arrival of more women in the Cabinet in this week’s re-shuffle has hardly resulted in unalloyed celebration amongst commentators, let alone the voting public. And no wonder. So late in the parliamentary cycle it is unlikely that new ministers will make major changes to departmental or government policy direction in the run-up to the 2015 election.
Inevitably, the promotion of Nicky Morgan, Liz Truss and Esther McVey has raised accusations of ‘tokenism’ – women being brought on board because of gender alone, not due to merit or skill on their part. Opponents might say this is not so much a re-shuffle as a shuffling of the deckchairs before election defeat – but all-out election victory for either of our two main parties is not yet certain by any means. And much of the electorate remains apathetic at best, often not registered to vote to boot.
The tokenism argument addressed to women does make me raise an eyebrow – of course it’s true that being seen to support more women into office must have been a factor in the Prime Minister’s thinking. But all Cabinets contain members who are tokens of something – that’s kind of the point. No-one seems to be calling Philip Hammond a ‘token’ Eurosceptic – but there he is, a signalling device put in place to address sectional concerns. It is, as the Today programme put it, arguably all about the ‘optics’ – i.e. a re-shuffle to address perceptions, not policy content. You could also say that by replacing Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan, rather than Liz Truss who has some background that portfolio, David Cameron is making a ‘token’ gesture to show that Gove’s policies will remain essentially unchanged. I’m sure the teaching profession will see no irony in his new appointment as Chief Whip.
But the fact that more women have been brought to the top table does matter. The perception of a mono-cultural Cabinet with too few women had grown too important to ignore. The cynical would say that this is just window-dressing; but the window had to be dressed because the impression of sidelining women had grown too dominant and too damaging to ignore. It was necessary for David Cameron to address this issue, and that indicates the impact of those who have drawn attention to women’s poor representation in parliament and at the top of government.
The interesting thing about politics is that, in the words attributed to Macmillan – a PM with his own famous ‘night of the long knives’ – all the neat policy directions do get stirred up by ‘events, dear boy, events’. Perhaps for the new Cabinet this should be re-phrased as ‘events, dear person, events’ – they will get in the way, and at least we now know that some more diverse perspectives might influence responses to them. That is a small piece of progress. Let’s hope that politics can move on beyond the window-dressing and break down the doors of perception.