When David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet earlier this month it was proclaimed as a ‘cull’ of the middle aged white man, a beast that is far from endangered in British politics. Most commentators agreed that, by bringing women into the cabinet, Cameron was trying to counter the frequent accusations that his government and his party weren’t doing enough to promote equality. Of course, while there were a number of women promoted in the reshuffle, the cabinet remains overwhelmingly male, middle aged and white. Only one of the senior ministerial posts is occupied by a woman (Theresa May, the Home Secretary). At the same time, Baroness Stowell was appointed to the position of Leader of the House of Lords only to discover that, unlike her male predecessor, she would not be given a full cabinet position and would be paid less accordingly. Even in the way the reshuffle was covered there were some clues as to how men always seem to come out on top. One of the ministers fired was Ken Clarke. When his sacking was reported he was treated as one of the aforementioned middle aged men being ‘culled’. Mr Clarke is currently 74 years old. One cannot imagine a female minister of that age being treated in the same way (or reaching that age and still holding a cabinet post at all).
So, as the dust finally settles and various ministers have worked out who does what in their new offices, there should be two things easily apparent. Firstly, this reshuffle has done very little to increase equality at the heart of government. Secondly, and more importantly, David Cameron could have fired every man in his cabinet and it would have been nothing but empty symbolism. Politics has a women problem and it can only be fixed by changing attitudes, not job titles.
Witness, if you will, the reaction to the news that David Ruffley, the MP for Bury St Edmunds, is to stand down at the next election. His reasons are not political but highly personal; he has just been given a police caution for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. It is certainly not a case that will leave you basking in the warm glow of political equality. The incident in question occurred in March this year and resulted in Ruffley being arrested and spending a night in custody, but it took until this month for an official caution to be issued and for Ruffley to issue a statement signalling his intention to resign. Except he will not be resigning now, but at the next election. One Tory MP, cited by Spectator journalist Harry Cole, suggested that the reason Ruffley was not resigning immediately was to avoid the political distraction of the by-election it would trigger. ‘He could have killed his wife before Lynton would allow a by-election‘ the source reportedly said (‘Lynton’ refers of Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby). This on its own doesn’t give much support to the idea that the political establishment really cares about women. Yet it gets worse. Ruffley himself apologised as if he was a little confused as to why things had suddenly gone south for him. Even following the police caution his party did not investigate him and it was only when the Canon of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, in Ruffley’s Bury constituency, wrote to a number of key Tory figures to complain that an enquiry into his actions was launched. However, the new Tory Whip Michael Gove, who will lead the investigation, has already gone on record thanking Ruffley for his service to Parliament and expressing sadness that he will be standing down. Not an action that suggests his investigation will be entirely impartial.
Away from Westminster, Ruffley’s local constituency party also appears to be less than concerned by his actions. After his initial arrest it appears that a constituency meeting was scheduled in September to address the issue, a full six months after it originally took place. This meeting has now been brought forwards but it is clear that Ruffley still has many friends willing to fight his case. Andrew Speed, the chair of the Bury St Edmunds Conservative Association, declared that while he did not ‘condone domestic violence’ he was unsure that Ruffley’s actions, assaulting his female partner in their home, amounted to such an offence. ‘I do not believe that David’s incident qualifies in any way as domestic abuse…I understand why the opposition and minority feminist groups would try to make the link to DV…(emphasis added)’.
Asses that statement for a moment. Not only does Speed’s assertion that ‘David’s incident’ (note how he calls it an ‘incident’, like it is something a badly behaved child might do that embarrasses their parents) is not ‘in any way’ domestic abuse make no sense, he then goes on to try an trivialise the ‘incident’ and make it out to be a political issue. These are not the words of a man who really understands or cares what domestic abuse is.
Then there is Bernard Sergeant, another member of the Bury Conservative Association who was interviewed on BBC radio. He was even more oblivious. First he questioned why Ruffley should be ‘defrocked’ over assaulting his partner (because it would ruin his career, ‘Why should they have the right to do that?’ he asked) before continuing, ‘We do have these odd female organisations that look for equality and I think that they’ve got it…All these things happen behind closed doors…nether the police, not the offended party, actually pressed for charges’.
Of course Sergeant is right, this is an event that happened behind closed doors and charges were not pressed. But perhaps it is exactly the victim blaming, disbelief and ‘so what’ attitude displayed by Ruffley’s supporters, including Mr Sergeant, that the victim was not willing to expose herself to. You can hardly blame her given some of the reactions displayed to the case.
There can be little doubt that David Ruffley has been a well liked, hard working MP. Prior to the events of March he had even made a number of statements supporting campaigns against domestic violence. Yet none of this excuses, in any way, his actions or gives him grounds to defend himself. Equally those who have jumped to his defense or sought to lessen the issue for political means are showing exactly why all of Cameron’s reshuffle posturing is cosmetic. The promotion of a few women to cabinet positions may have grabbed headlines but it wont change people’s opinions. Just as getting more women into boardrooms (where they are often mistaken for the tea lady anyway) will not make conditions for the average female worker better, a few more women MPs at the top does not mean that women’s rights will be taken more seriously or that politics will be more appealing to women. To cannibalise from a better writer than I, equality, just like wealth, does not ‘trickle down’. Solving the problem that politics has with women is going to take more than a few cosmetic promotions. It will take hard work that no one in power seems willing to do.