Ask anyone who really knows David Cameron and they will tell you he likes a certain kind of woman. He has a very specific type, the Prime Minister. It is almost spooky the way all his women conform to it.
They are all attractive, accomplished, articulate and well-dressed. But there is something else that makes certain women irresistible to Mr Cameron. While giving the appearance of being feisty and uncompromising, his sort of woman usually seems to know when to fall into line.
I am not speaking of romantic conquests, but of the type of woman the Prime Minister likes to promote. Mr Cameron has an eye, like Tony Blair before him, for a good physical specimen — perfectly blow-dried, impeccably styled. But he most appreciates the kind of girl who doesn’t have too strong an urge to get something particular accomplished. She must not be too wedded to a specific area of expertise, experience or knowledge.
This is because it is extremely important that a female minister be ready to drop everything at any given moment and go to wherever the Prime Minister needs her to go on the cabinet re-shuffle chessboard. She should ideally be able to conveniently forget, for example, that for years she has been an expert in education. She should be prepared to dust off her Hunter wellies and pretend to have an instinctive feel for farming as the PM packs her off to Defra.
She will be expected to go at any time to any place, any department in Whitehall. Regardless of where her talents ought to be sending her, she is headed for a department that is considered too male, too pale, too stale. Her mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to act as a decoy.
Virtually nowhere in British life does this method of using women to balance the look of an organisation exist any more. When he reshuffles his cabinet by quota, Cameron is being sexist in a way that has largely died out in every other walk of our nation’s life.
As women routinely break through the glass ceiling purely on their merits, in arenas from banking and law to engineering and information technology, Cameron presides over the last bastion of soft misogyny.
Maybe this is because he is the sort of old-fashioned Tory who deep down, in spite of the rhetoric about valuing women for their abilities, believes that a woman’s place is in the PR strategy. Women are there for presentational reasons: to sex things up, to add pizzazz, to style things out. When times are good, you hardly ever see one promoted. When times are tough, when the polls are downward, when an election year is imminent, he performs a massive landslide of a reshuffle, shifting out the stale and male to make way for the blonde blow-dries and the Vivienne Westwood outfits, and resulting in the sort of carefully choreographed headlines we saw this week: a third of tories in the cabinet now women!
As such, the sooner the women promoted in this latest reshuffle get used to the harsh reality, the better: they are seen by the PM as tokens.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the tokenism worked, if it resulted in the promotion of women who genuinely made a difference to the way the government connected with real people. But one could argue that after the latest purge of ‘male and pale’, the cabinet has become even more dominated by a metropolitan elite. Out go a few of the men who have limited grasp of the concerns of working families, in come a raft of women who exist almost exclusively in the Westminster bubble.
This is because in his search for women who will look good, sound smart but make minimal fuss behind the scenes, Mr Cameron often opts for politicos: newly promoted Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt, for example, are both seasoned ex-Tory press officers. They understand putting loyalty and strategy on a par with, or even ahead of, substance and policy.
In fact, if you consider the loss of Hague and Gove, the balance of people who are genuinely in touch with Middle Britons and know what it is to come up the hard way has actually shifted in favour of the privileged with this reshuffle.
But for the women themselves, this state of affairs needn’t be too depressing, because if you settle down and get on with it without making a fuss, life as a token can be pretty good. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, being put at the helm of a Whitehall department for expediency, but it’s a quieter existence than being put there to actually accomplish something. As one leading countryside campaigner said of Liz Truss’s appointment as secretary of state for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: ‘We don’t care. It doesn’t actually matter, because she’s obviously been put there to do absolutely nothing until the next election. The animal rights lot wanted Owen Paterson’s head on a platter and Cameron has given it to them. In his place, he’s put Mrs Nicey Nice to keep every-one happy. She’ll just do whatever Cameron tells her to.’
They could be wrong, of course. This could be an outrageous slur on Ms Truss, who might be about to set the world alight with ambitious plans to cull more badgers than ever, or push for an early vote on repeal of the hunting ban.
Somehow, I doubt it. It would be kind to say that Ms Truss, though a woman of considerable talent, is not known for her instinctive feel for the issues that matter in the countryside. Anyone who has followed her meteoric, and controversial, rise to the top will agree that it is hard to think of anyone less suited to tackling the problems facing the rural community than this former A-lister.
Cast your mind back to 2009 and you may remember that Ms Truss was the subject of a furious row when she was adopted as the candidate for South West Norfolk. Shortly after she was adopted, the local Conservative Association were shocked to discover that she had not been forthcoming with them about an extramarital affair she had conducted with a married fellow Tory MP. They launched an attempt to get rid of her — on the basis that she had lied and they couldn’t trust her — but the Tory hierarchy came down on them like a ton of bricks. After a deeply embarrassing and undignified battle, the Norfolk Tories, dubbed the Turnip Taleban, finally gave in.
The suspicion then and now was that Ms Truss was protected and forced on an unsuitable seat because she was favoured by Cameron. She had been marked for high office before she even got selected not simply because she was a woman, but because she was just the sort of woman the Prime Minister likes: trendy, metropolitan, modernising, non-confrontational.
It is a similar story with the other female ministers promoted this week. Nicky Morgan, Esther McVey, Penny Mordaunt, Priti Patel… I would put money on the fact that none of them will have a stand-up row over policy direction. They will be happy to play the game the PM has invited them to play: dressing up. Whatever their abilities, they are being used as Barbie dolls put into different outfits. Mr Cameron starts with a costume — or government department — and then picks a doll to wear it.
Or is it worse than that? Sometimes, it is almost as if he deliberately puts a woman in precisely the wrong job, mismatching their talents on purpose, to restrict their effectiveness. After all, Ms Truss, an education minister with a background in public sector think tanks and pamphlets on child care and schools policy, would have made an excellent Education Secretary. But the PM gave that job to Nicky Morgan, a former corporate lawyer in mergers and acquisitions and Treasury minister. It is as if he wants the reflected glory of having talented women around him, but he doesn’t want to give them anything to do that they will be so good at that they will become potent enough to challenge him.
The one minister to buck that trend is, of course, Theresa May. But I’m sure Dave didn’t realise when he made her Home Secretary how good she would be. I’ll wager he put her in there thinking she would come and go without a peep, or make a muck-up, as all Home Secretaries do in the end. Perhaps he thought she would have a couple of years, then preside over an immigration scandal and get sent to the great Home Secretary home in the sky.
I’m certain he didn’t envisage her performing with such aplomb that she rose and rose in popularity until, emboldened by her growing reputation as the voice of real Tories, she started to challenge his authority and question his judgment on key issues — on which she was right, incidentally. Speculation that she might make leadership material was the final straw. She was roundly slapped down and briefed against, and she might have been done for were it not for the fact that a keen survival instinct told her to quietly back down. There’s a good girl.
Of course ministers must be loyal, and there is a fine line between rebellion and speaking your mind. But it is one thing to be loyal and quite another to be so slavishly happy to be at the Prime Minister’s quota service that you report for duty in Downing Street wearing a pretty dress, a wide smile and an identikit blow-dry.
Will the Stepford Ministers prove the naysayers wrong, or will they do exactly what Dave has put them there for? Look good and behave themselves.