Theresa May has promoted women. But she’s a Tory first and a feminist second

The prime minister has an excellent track record on equality until it comes into conflict with her conservative instincts – above all on immigration

The Guardian, Thursday 14 July 2016

Theresa May hasn’t wasted any time. Some of the biggest names in politics – figures who dominated the headlines in the last few months – lost their jobs on her first full day as prime minister. There are big posts for women – Liz Truss, Justine Greening, Amber Rudd – but Theresa Villiers has resigned from the government and Nicky Morgan is out. Morgan’s sacking as education secretary was overshadowed by the departure of justice secretary Michael Gove, exactly two weeks after he announced an unexpected ambition to become prime minister.

May had already achieved a first when she promoted Rudd from energy and climate change to the Home Office. For the first time ever, two of the top four jobs in cabinet are held simultaneously by women; Labour’s Margaret Beckett stepped down as foreign secretary as Jacqui Smith became home secretary in June 2007, missing each other by a single day. May has also appointed the first female lord chancellor, giving Gove’s old post to Truss.

It is a far cry from Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet. In 1979, there were only eight female Conservative MPs, and the country’s first woman prime minister famously appointed a cabinet consisting entirely of men. May’s appointments appear not so much a conscious attempt at gender balance as modern, reflecting the very different composition of the House of Commons in 2016.

Even so, the past couple of days have demonstrated that fevered discussions about gender are impossible to avoid. There is something depressingly sexist about the idea that everything a powerful woman does is to do with her gender, although no one was clear whether May was supposed to be more consensual than David Cameron or a contemporary version of the Iron Lady. As news of a clear-out of former cabinet colleagues began to emerge, the verdict shifted inevitably in the latter direction.

Something much more interesting tends to get lost in all this pointless dancing around the idea of biological essentialism. It is a paradox of modern democratic politics that it is right-wing parties, the Conservatives in this country and the Christian Democrats in Germany, which have produced women leaders with real power. That is because the right is better at ditching losers and identifying winners, something cruelly illustrated by the contrast between May’s swift coronation and the shambles currently engulfing the Labour party.

Right-wing parties have a ruthless instinct for success. If a woman is the leading candidate, most Tories can live with that. May’s acceptance speech was all about one-nation Conservatism but they know her record in government includes support for totemic policies such as the bedroom tax. When she was home secretary, her department even came up with a pilot scheme to send two vans on a tour of London boroughs, telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

It is around the issue of immigration that May’s reforming and hard-line instincts most obviously collide. It is massively to her credit that she introduced the government’s first strategy to end violence against women and girls, something that was promised in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election. May talked privately to women’s organisations, listening to their anxieties about a whole range of issues, including domestic and sexual violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

After the election, she published a “call to end VAWG” (violence against women and girls) which became government strategy in 2011. Crucially, she understood that the threat of violence doesn’t just damage women, but actually holds them back in every aspect of their lives. She can point to an impressive list of achievements, from protection orders for women at risk of domestic violence and FGM to a new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour.

She was not reluctant to take on the police, ordering a review in 2013 of how they handled domestic violence, and bluntly telling the Police Federation conference two months ago that victims are still being let down. She is thought to support compulsory sex education in schools – a measure fiercely opposed by academies and blocked by Cameron, it is believed. She has committed to spend £80m over the next four years on support services for victims, such as rape crisis centres.

But there are limits to May’s political imagination. Services for women from Bame (black and minority ethnic) communities have suffered disproportionately from government spending cuts, even though victims often suffer multiple forms of abuse. Most notoriously, she has refused to end the detention of vulnerable asylum-seekers, including victims of sexual violence and pregnant women, at Yarl’s Wood.

May’s vision is clouded, in other words, when her laudable ambition to promote equality comes up against her Tory instinct to be tough on immigration. No one should doubt that she wants to improve the lives of women from less fortunate backgrounds. But make no mistake: our new prime minister is a Conservative first, and a feminist second.

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