Strange times. I was upstairs broadcasting from quarantine at home after returning from the US. Downstairs Anji, who was the Director of Government Relations in Tony Blair’s Number Ten, was a guest on Woman’s Hour. No prizes for guessing what we were both talking about: dysfunction in today’s Downing Street.
The woman angle has been particularly popular during the imbroglio which has seen two louts, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, kicked out of their positions at the heart of government at the behest, it is alleged, of Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancée, and Allegra Stratton, his newly appointed spokeswoman.
Nobody seemed sorry to see the back of the pseudo Blindman of Barnard Castle and his fellow “spud head”. Yet Ms Symonds was still referred to gleefully “Lady Macbeth” and “Princess Nut Nuts” while “the Court of Queen Carrie” was said to be populated by “the Witches of Westminster”.
“Is Westminster sexist?” I asked Lauren McEvatt, an erstwhile special advisor in the Wales Office. “You’ll need a whole new programme”, she replied. Evatt is a veteran from the Cameron years, and she knows what it was like then and now for her “close friend” Carrie Symonds. But has it always been as bad? Could it even have got worse in the Tory years since 2010?
Of course, women have always had to come from behind in British politics. Married women’s property only stopped automatically becoming their husbands’ in 1870. Some – older, wealthy – women got the vote in 1918. In 1919 the first female MP, Nancy Astor, took her seat. In 1928 Women were given equal voting rights with men. In 1929 the Labour MP Margaret Bondfield was appointed the first female cabinet minister (of Labour) and Privy Counsellor.
That was all a long time ago, so surely things must have moved on since then. In an age of equality, it really shouldn’t matter what sex people are when it comes to their work.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
There were trailblazers at Westminster in the 1960s. Marcia Williams was one of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s most powerful aides inside Number Ten. In parliament the indomitable Barbara Castle was a star minister, remembered for introducing the drink drive breathalyser and failing to get her “in place of strife” trade union curbs into law. Harold’s wife, the poet Mary Wilson, took a low-key approach, concentrating on her cultural and charitable interests and keeping their two grown-up sons out the limelight.
Nobody dared trivialize Barbara Castle, “the red queen”, although Jim Callaghan sacked her when he took over from Wilson. Not because she was a woman but because the two had never got on. Marcia Williams was a controversial figure. Those who attacked her used sexist tropes: had she had an affair with Wilson? And why did she write out the “lavender list” of resignation honours on such girly paper?
Viewers of the latest series of The Crown get an accurate insight into what the Thatcher years felt like for all the liberties taken with the actualité. There simply weren’t a lot of women around except her, in the government or in its backrooms. Margaret Thatcher thrived on being the only woman among men and tried to be more than a match for them. Her son, Mark, generally considered appalling by those who have met him, was definitely her favourite over his likeable twin sister Carol. The Crown’s author, Peter Morgan, has his Thatcher character explain that she considers women weak and to blame for staying at home as housewives.
After an early newspaper interview in which she expressed strident views on crime and punishment, Prime Minister John Major’s wife Norma elected to spend most of her time at home in Huntingdon with her two children or following her passion for opera. Major is a man with an eye for women, although he largely overlooked them politically. His first cabinet contained no women. I don’t think he noticed. When I pointed it out while broadcasting live, an official was sent out to tell me that Gillian Shepherd had just been appointed as a third-tier minister. Shepherd and Virginia Bottomley subsequently evolved into loyal stalwarts of Major’s cabinet.
The big boost for women in politics came with the Labour landslide in 1997. There were more female MPs than ever before, even if they were patronisingly dismissed as “Blair Babes”. Margaret Beckett, Mo Mowlem, Harriet Harman, and Margaret Jay were just some of the women who served in prominent roles in his government, which, with the appointment of Jacqui Smith, began the practise which persists to this day of handing the hard-hearted job of Home Secretary to a woman.
Blair also promoted special advisors to work alongside ministers and their civil servants. In true northern bloke style, Alastair Campbell’s diaries give the impression that he and the Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell were the first among equal of these. True, the role of Chief of Staff was a Blairite innovation and the two of them took two formal powers to give orders to civil servants. But in fact, there was usually a woman at the top table as well, first Anji Hunter, not then my wife, and after her Sally Morgan. The rest of his team was assembled on an equal opportunity basis including many women such as Liz Lloyd, Kate Garvey, Sarah Hunter, Hilary Coffman, Sharon White, Ruth Turner, Clare Sumner, Catherine Rimmer and Fiona Millar, Campbell’s partner in life.
Then there was Cherie Blair, the first full-time working mother with young children ever in 10 Downing Street. Cherie had outpaced her husband in their legal careers and, like Carrie Symonds, had long been a political activist. Yet she came under constant criticism for almost everything, including alleged advice given to her husband in private.
Gordon Brown continued to promote women in government. He and his largely male coterie were more blokeish than the Blairites; “what team do you support?” was his all-purpose conversational icebreaker. However, Sue Nye remained his closest aide throughout his time in government.
Things changed when David Cameron came into office. His wife Samantha chose to pursue her own career and private interests. The heart of government consisted of the Chumocracy and their ladies. The Chaps, mostly but not exclusively form Eton, took all the top jobs – Ed Lewellyn Chief of Staff, Andrew Feldman party chairman, George Osborne, Chancellor etc – and a team of women ministered to them including Kate Fall, Gaby Bertin and Liz Sugg. All bar Osborne can now be found in the House of Lords.
Theresa May championed women’s causes but, like Thatcher, she was no particular friend of women at Westminster.
Then came Boris Johnson, a man well known for his fondness for women, but not particularly inclined to take them seriously. He sacked ministers of proven ability such as Penny Mordaunt and Anne Milton, and carelessly allowed Anne Marie Trevelyan, one of the few senior women in his team, to drop out of the cabinet when departments were re-organised. He handed over the running of his headquarters to puerile misogynists. In an early attempt to prove how tough he was Dominic Cummings sacked Sonia Khan, a young special advisor, and had her marched off the premises by security. Shah has just received a five-figure settlement for unfair dismissal. Ultimately the taxpayer will pick up that bill.
Perhaps Johnson and Cameron’s problem is that they attended that particular all male boarding school. Never mind. This Prime Minister now has a chance to re-set his attitude towards women. The new Covid world of flexible working through screens, which we now inhabit, should make it easier for him to ignore the gender of work colleagues and treat all equally.