OK there are bigger stories in the reshuffle, but the tale of Jake Berry is an important one. He quit to spend more time with his family – and really meant that.
Berry was minister for the northern powerhouse. He is also one of Boris Johnson’s oldest allies in the Commons. These days (almost) everyone is the PM’s friend, but not long ago there were only two: Berry and Ben Wallace. So when Berry says he was asked to stay in government, believe him.
And why is he not a minister today? Because he was offered a job that would have taken him abroad a lot when his children are very young; thanks to the arrival of a new baby this month, he and his wife now have three children under three. So faced with a choice of career and kids, he chose the kids.
What’s more, he talked about it, tweeting:
“Family will always come first and I felt unable to accept the offer.”
This matters, and maybe not just for Westminster. Politics is still a stupid long-hours occupation where participants have to choose between work and family. That choice is still not discussed enough and when it is, it’s often in the context of women and the responsibilities of motherhood. Sometimes the conversation about family vs career seems to omit men with children; it is simply assumed that they will forego time with their children, and be content to do so.
Which, of course, isn’t true. Men in politics, as elsewhere, are quite likely to want to spend more time with their children, to worry about the cost their job imposes on their families, even though many of them don’t speak of it in public.
This is part of – and perhaps reinforces – a wider reluctance among men to talk about work and family. A couple of years ago, my think-tank published a report about working families that showed a third of men would be willing to work and earn less to spend more time with their children
But the number who actually do so is much smaller, because at least some of those men just don’t feel they can even ask employers for a flexible approach to work. Indeed, the data shows that men’s average working week gets longer after they have children, most likely to compensate for the earnings that female partners.
Now, I’m biased — I only go to my office four days a week — but I think a norm where women sacrifice careers to childcare and men work more to make up the cost of them is bad for women and men alike. I’m not interested in telling anyone how to organise their family but I do think people should have more choices about how to do that. A social climate where men can more easily talk about being working parents would facilitate those choices.
Berry’s decision advances a welcome trend towards men in politics talking about being working fathers. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has cheerily spoken of doing broadcast interviews while changing nappies, something that sends a message: men look after children too, and – like all parents – need a bit of slack to juggle their professional and family duties.
In less happy circumstances, John Woodcock, standing down from the Commons last year, wrote about the impossibility of being an MP and having time for his children. Chris Skidmore, bafflingly sacked this week, also made clear how happy he’ll be to have more time for his children.
Will a few MPs talking about work and families change culture? Not alone, no. But it will help. Well done, Jake Berry.