Amber Rudd, the former Conservative cabinet minister, has lambasted Boris Johnson for the “embarrassing” lack of female Conservative MPs and his government’s “devastating” approach to the Brexit trade talks.
Speaking to the Financial Times’ Payne’s Politics podcast, the former home secretary and equalities minister accused the prime minister of a “terrible mistake” in giving the appearance that he was “only interested in having men at the senior level” in his government because that results in “poorer decision making”.
“You could only conclude that this government’s default position is to trust and work with men and that every now and again they wake up [and] think ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do about the women? Quick, get me women on the next presentation.’ And that approach [to] women, as a kind of an inconvenient extra, is not the way to handle half the population.”
Ms Rudd said it was impossible to “conclude anything else” than that “the prime minister is clearly more comfortable with men and is promoting men and hugging them close”. She added that it was “extraordinary” that 97 per cent of Downing Street’s coronavirus press conferences were led by male ministers.
“What’s extraordinary is that nobody is objecting — they should — and that the prime minister’s inner team haven’t noted this and tried to learn from it and do something about it,” she said.
The former Tory MP, who represented Hastings and Rye from 2010 until 2019 and served as energy and climate change secretary, home secretary, and work and pensions secretary, criticised the “embarrassing” number of women within the Conservative parliamentary party. After the 2019 election, only a quarter of Tory MPs were female compared with more than half in the Labour party.
“I used to get up when I was a minister at the despatch box and in front of me was what represented society, the Labour party with men and women, with people from different offices in different parts of the country, different classes,” she said. “But mainly they just looked different and looked representative of the country. And behind me and alongside me, it was just too homogeneous.”
She added she was increasingly cynical about the ability of the Conservative party “to reform to do the right thing and stop being the place where women are the exception rather than part of the norm”. But Ms Rudd said that introducing all-women shortlists would be an acceptance of “giving up on driving equality through root and branch”.
Ms Rudd, who quit Mr Johnson’s cabinet as work and pensions secretary and equalities minister last year after he sacked 21 Conservative MPs for defying the party line on Brexit, said the prime minister had “casually allowed people with substantial experience . . . to just be lost”, which made his government and party “poorer”.
The former minister who now advises several companies and presents a show on Times Radio, said the “very confrontational” nature of the Johnson government was one of the primary reasons she quit the government last autumn. “I think that stirring up people to be angry with each other is the wrong approach — wrong for our country, wrong for democracy.”
Ms Rudd, who campaigned for Remain during the 2016 EU referendum but consistently voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, described Mr Johnson’s hardline approach to pursuing a trade deal with Brussels as “absolutely devastating”, suggesting the burden on businesses would be significant.
“In a time when we are also anxious about unemployment, that the government is ploughing on with what it knows because its own figures show it and almost all business leaders say so, will hurt employment as well,” she said. “I find it sort of inexplicable, that the government can’t find a way of delivering on the referendum while doing it in a way that tries to protect jobs.”
In response to Ms Rudd’s comments, Downing Street said the government was “focused on improving diversity throughout our ministerial ranks and crucially lining up the next generation of female talent”.
“Alongside one of the most diverse cabinets in history we now have an equal gender balance at junior ministerial level, meaning more female MPs will be better placed for future promotions,” Downing Street added. “This is how we will ensure that we better reflect the country we serve.”