It was hard not to balk at the hypocrisy of Conservative MPs yesterday, as they rose at PMQs to thank Theresa May for her service and to applaud her out of the Commons chamber. These people have made her job, her life, almost impossible for three years.
I won’t for one minute pretend some, even a large part, of the problems May encountered were not of her own making. She is clearly single-minded to the point of obstinance and poor at reaching out to colleagues in order to foster relationships with them. That’s a pretty disastrous combination for a PM in the best of times, let alone the times May found herself leading in. Having failed to “crush the saboteurs” at the 2017 General Election, running an awful campaign and losing her majority instead, she was unable to achieve the sole stated aim of her premiership. Theresa May leaves Downing Street with the UK still in the EU. One can only conclude therefore, that she was not an effective Prime Minister.
However, have no doubt that sexism played its part in her struggles as well. I’m sure there will be many who disagree with this. Who think that she was just a bad Prime Minister, irrespective of chromosomes.
That is too let too many off the hook too easily. Whether it was the braying Tory boys on the backbenches or Jeremy Corbyn’s “stupid woman” incident, the way May was discussed and dismissed by colleagues and opponents alike all too often reeked of misogyny. They failed to appreciate that, whatever her failings, having a woman as Prime Minister did send a powerful message to young girls. As May put it herself in her departing speech: “I hope that every young girl who has seen a woman Prime Minister now knows for sure that there are no limits to what they can achieve.” For those like Boris Johnson and Corbyn who are used to seeing people like themselves in power this might be hard to grasp, but it is nonetheless true.
A similar point was made in that PMQs session. Jo Swinson, the first female leader of the Lib Dems, commented on how inspiring it is for young girls to see women in positions of power and asked: “What advice does the Prime Minister have for women throughout the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work?”
It was an effective question because, let’s be honest, that has been the underlying feeling of many of the Conservative MPs. In the months before May announced her resignation, you could almost hear them thinking “look at this silly woman try and deal with this complicated thing, we need to get a man into do it.”
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In her reply to Swinson, May was right to lambast Labour as the only party never to have a female leader. It is pathetic. The Tiggers have even managed to have two in a matter of months. But getting there is only a small part of the battle. Female leaders are, whether we like it or not, held to a different standard to their male counterparts.
Whatever his reasons for doing so, Boris Johnson does deserve credit for the number of women and people from ethnic minorities he has brought into Cabinet. However, it is no coincidence that the Conservatives have elected as their leader the total anti-May. Where May was cautious and diligent, Johnson is brash and appears to pay little attention to detail. And he is, obviously, male. Very male – with the wives, ex-wives, girlfriends and assorted offspring to prove it.
This “maleness” (I’ve heard it described as the “Top Gear” effect,) is making a lot of the Conservative party, and some of the country feel good at the moment. But with politics more tumultuous than it has ever been in peace time, before too long we may well find ourselves wishing we had a Prime Minister who can bring a “female touch” to Number 10.