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Cabinet Shuffle Sees Record Number Of Women Promoted
Duncan Sutherland and Yvonne Galligan
Following widespread criticism of the low profile given to Labour's women ministers in the campaign, it was thus a very welcome development that the subsequent cabinet shuffle saw an increase in women's presence at the highest levels of government (Table 1).
Of the previous six women in cabinet Clare Short and Helen Liddell retain their portfolios of Overseas Development and the Scotland Office, and Margaret Beckett is moved to the new Department of Environment and Rural Affairs, where she will have responsibility for foot-and-mouth disease, resolving the issue of foxhunting, and reviving the rural tourism industry (Table 2).
Four junior ministers from the previous ministry are elevated to the cabinet: Tessa Jowell becomes Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with expanded responsibilities such as censorship and organizing the Queen's golden jubilee in 2002; Estelle Morris is elevated to the top job in the revamped department of Education and Skills; and Patricia Hewitt will serve double duty at the Department of Trade and Industry (previously held by Margaret Beckett from 1997-8) and as Minister for Women. Her elevation to the cabinet a mere four years after entering parliament is one of the fastest rises for an MP in recent times. Finally Hilary Armstrong becomes Chief Whip, replacing Ann Taylor (one of six women to leave the government in this reshuffle).
*Chief whip sits in Cabinet but is not responsible for a ministry.
Women now form almost one-third (30 per cent) of the cabinet, higher than the EU average in 2000 of 25 per cent. It is also worth noting that between 1929 and 1997 only ten women in total sat in British cabinets. Since coming to power in 1997, Blair has appointed 11 women altogether to cabinet office, more than doubling the presence of women in government.
This is a reminder that when women are elected in significant numbers to parliament, it facilitates their appointment to ministerial and other high political office. At the elections of 1987 and 1992, the proportion of women among government MPs was 4 per cent and 6 per cent respectively, and it was during this period, from November 1990 until April 1992, that Britain had its first all-male cabinet in almost thirty years.
Equally important to the record number of women in cabinet is the qualitative increase in women's political power. Of the six women ministers, four now have responsibility for spending departments. Although the appointment of a woman as Education Secretary is less of an innovation - the post has been held by women a record six times - the prominence of education as an election issue signifies the increased importance of the position in the coming parliament. While Hilary Armstrong is not in charge of a spending department, as Chief Whip she will share responsibility with the leader of the House for furthering reform of the House's procedures, perhaps helping to make it more family-friendly and changing its hours of sitting.
The women backbenchers first elected in 1997 who disappointed some commentators with their failure to transform the House may also exert more pressure for change, with the confidence that comes to all MPs after completing their freshman terms. Although the number of women in parliament has slightly decreased since 1997, perhaps they will be able to make an even greater impact on parliament and government in the coming four years.
Tony Blair has appointed twenty-three women to junior ministries, meaning that there is now a woman minister in every department except for the Ministry of Defence and the small Wales Office (Table 3). Almost half of the women junior ministers were first elected in 1997. Their success rate in gaining high political office compares favourably with that of their male counterparts. While there are almost twice as many men as women among the Labour MPs first elected in 1997 or during by-elections in the last parliament, eleven of each have been appointed ministers in this reshuffle.
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