The cabinet reshuffle has hardly been an exercise in gleaming meritocracy: after much trailing that it would change the gender profile, just two women were added to the numbers of full cabinet members. This is not, at all, a snide comment on the competences of those who have been promoted. It is simply that the exercise seems to have been very largely to do with presentation, and not at all to do with competence. And that’s not only unhelpful to the supposed beneficiaries but runs directly against the cause it’s supposedly espousing – better recognition for women.
It’s good that David Cameron has been sparing in his reshuffles. Whether you like what they’ve done or not – and I mostly don’t, sometimes strenuously so – he has allowed his ministers to get their feet well under their desks, learn their trades and work to a reasonable timescale.
But the timing and manner of the reshuffle has had consequences. Some ministers have been shifted out who have performed adequately or at least done what they were supposed to do. Some who have stayed have shown spectacular incompetence, damaging many others very badly but apparently not themselves – Iain Duncan Smith being an obvious example. But the main relevance to the Paula Principle is the way in which the women have been appointed so late in the (fixed) parliamentary cycle that they are given no chance to demonstrate competence. We are already nearly into conference season and then the election; even if they happened already to have their new portfolio at their fingertips, they can hardly introduce any changes before time runs out.
It means, inescapably, that this has been a pretty cynical exercise. I am slightly reminded of the ‘glass cliff’ idea – that where women are put in charge of companies it is the ones which are just about to plunge downwards. Be that as it may Nicky Morgan, who replaces Michael Gove, may be a tough and clever politician, but she is clearly there to put an emollient sheen on the government’s record. The competences required are cosmetic not substantive, and that is sad.
By the way, I learn from the Centre for Women & Democracy website that Ed Miliband has committed Labour to having 50% women in their next cabinet. They already have 40% in the shadow cabinet, so they are above any reasonable threshold. The rigid 50/50 formula is to me not just practically problematic , but actively undermines the notion of gender which rejects treating women and men as two wholly discrete groups. Why shouldn’t women make up 60% of the cabinet?