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'Is the PM a feminist? You'd have to ask him': Amber Rudd in conversation with Caroline Nokes

'Is the PM a feminist? You'd have to ask him': Amber Rudd in conversation with Caroline Nokes

Then immigration minister Caroline Nokes (centre) and work and pensions secretary (left) Amber Rudd are seen outside Downing Street in London with Jeremy Hunt, March 2019 | Alamy

9 min read

Former government colleagues and close friends Amber Rudd and Caroline Nokes have a cumulative 20 years of experience as MPs. With Rudd now in the private sector and Nokes chairing the Women and Equalities Select Committee, they reflect on whether things have changed for women in parliament – and why the government needs to end the “boys’ club”

Caroline Nokes: In your 10 years in Parliament, did you think the sexism there got less, got more, stayed the same? 

Amber Rudd: I think it got less. It’s difficult for me to really assess because, by the end, people weren’t mucking around with me, having been home secretary and secretary of state for work and pensions. Once you get very senior, you don’t experience the sexism. 

But I was thinking about [how] sexism is different being in parliament to being in the private sector. And I think it’s to do with people’s group behaviour. It’s how you find yourself in the tea room suddenly experiencing a really unpleasant sort of sexist conversation, not about you but just the kind of banter that goes on around.

And that is wholly different to the private sector … and it’s also different to the Civil Service. Civil servants would never behave like that. It’s just parliament that still has these groups of men who behave as though they are, as Trump would say, having “locker room conversations”. 

CN: I’ve always said it’s like a prep school. The boys haven’t quite got to 13. 

AR: Yeah! But why is that? I think it’s partly to do with the fact that so many of them have been in institutions, and have been in parliament, and have not really been into the regulated, ventilated world of the private sector or the Civil Service. So they behave in this extraordinary schoolboy-ish way. And I don’t think it’s party particular, I know that we experienced it from the Conservative Party, but talking to Labour women, they say their party is just as bad. 

CN: I remember a Labour MP who actually laid his hands on me in a really inappropriate way. And I sort of went, “God, I thought it was better on your side. Apparently not.” Having gone back to the private sector, do you think that transition is easier for female former politicians than male?

AR: It was not too difficult for me because I [previously] had a career in the private sector. The aberration, in a way, was going [into] politics and then coming out again. 

But also I found that the private sector [has become] much more gender neutral, which is great. And at the same time, we have seen women in cabinet go backwards in terms of the numbers … So it’s an indication the private sector has managed to make equality much more real, and politicians have not

CN: Is that what we should be doing in parliament, permanently emphasising that there’s not enough women, that we need to get to a 50/50 parliament, that we have to have better representation at ministerial level?

AR: We have to continually point it out. The amount of women who are ministers has gone backwards since at least 2014 …. At the moment, well, Caroline, you may know this better than me, but it’s just under 25 per cent, .... [it does] look very much like [government is a] gang of men who trust each other. And where a woman is a kind of an exception, rather than a part of an inner circle.

CN: Do you think that’s it; that the boys are a part of the club, and the women are on the outside? 

AR: It does feel like that. It feels like that in the language they use as well, which I find so patronising. I saw recently that the government responded to something either you or I had said … pointing out the fact that there was a lack of women ministers or cabinet ministers. And they responded by saying “there are some very bright young women in parliament, who I’m sure will make it into cabinet in time”. 

It’s treating women as though they’re children. This idea that women need special treatment, special indulgence, it’s just absurd. It reflects an attitude towards women that belongs in the 19th century. 

CN: It really does. So, what does it take [for women to make the cabinet]? 

AR: It’s interesting you ask that because I’ve actually had two women ministers calling me in the past six weeks or so saying, how did you do it? What are the essential ingredients to getting into cabinet? And my advice to them, and to you, Caroline, or to any woman who is ambitious as a Member of Parliament, is to get a sponsor. And for me it was George Osborne who decided I was a good thing and got me promoted and basically kept an eye on me. And you can see that he did the same for Sajid [Javid]. 

The trouble with this government is that, as far as I can see, it is only Boris. There are increasingly other people, and some women, who have influence, but it wasn’t like David Cameron and George Osborne … It’s tricky, but ultimately you’ve got to find somebody who spots you, who wants to pull you up into cabinet. 

You also have to be somebody who can score runs for the government. One of the reasons some of this cabinet is in place is because they can score runs for Boris, they can go out there and defend the government and say why it is doing a great thing. 

And I do get concerned sometimes that candidates who could be promoted dodge some of the big set pieces, like Any Questions or Question Time. It’s not the only thing that helps get you noticed, but it is one of them. 

CN: I want to ask you the question about being woke. I know there are people in the Tory party today who describe me as painfully woke. How would you describe yourself; would you use that word? 

AR: You’re going to have to define ‘woke’ for me. 

CN: I think that’s a fair point, because I’m conscious that woke gets bandied around as an insult. I like to think of it as somebody who wants to champion equalities; make sure that people get a fair break. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, I really don’t. It gets me quite angry when people say, “well you are just too woke for your own good”. 

AR: It’s like people who believe in equality who say they’re not a feminist. What is feminism about? It’s just about equality. So don’t be frightened of using the word. Woke has been established as a negative word, but if all we’re talking about is equalities, we shouldn’t run away from it.

CN: I always say this: my mother fought battles in the 1970s so I didn’t have to. So I was very lazy when I arrived in parliament; I thought we’d dealt with all of the sexism and there was no such thing as a glass ceiling any more. Do you feel you’re still having to fight the battle that I was very late to take up, but now seem to be fighting every single day, so that my daughter doesn’t have to deal with the sorts of rubbish that I’ve had to?

AR: I think that your daughter will not have to deal with it in the private sector. But I just think politics is particularly bad. The regulations around it, the rules and the fact that so many MPs have been there for quite a long time, have made it a bit of a throwback. So I don’t think your daughter or my daughter will have to deal with that unless they make the decision – the interesting decision, Caroline, as we know – to go into politics. 

CN: Would you encourage Flora [Amber’s daughter] to?

AR: Yes, I think it’s the most brilliant career. I have no regrets at all about my own choices. I really enjoyed it and got things done I’m proud of. I think it’s a fantastic thing to do. But there is a lot that’s left to chance, so it’s a difficult career choice. 

CN: Those women who [were elected] in 2019, lots of them much younger than you and I were when we arrived, do you think they’re bringing something challenging, different, modernising to parliament [and] that’s actually a good thing? And should we see more young women think of it as a first career? 

AR: I like the idea of parliament having a real mixture of young, old, different talents. And in the same way I want to make sure there are more women coming into government, we want to make sure there are more women MPs coming into the Conservative Party. 

Georgina Bailey, The House: I have a question: Do you think the Prime Minister is a feminist and a champion of women?

AR: I think you’d have to ask him that. He is in some ways, but if he were a real feminist, he would have a 50/50 cabinet. Let’s challenge him to have that.

CN: And it is proof that Amber is a better politician than me still!

AR: Why?

CN: A very tactful answer about the PM!

AR: Can I make one other comment about our women and equalities minister [Liz Truss]? If you were to ask me if I think she is standing up for women sufficiently, I would say I’m a bit concerned that she seems… to view [inequalities] as competing with each other. And inequalities are not things that compete with each other, we should be addressing them all. It’s not The Hunger Games

CN: Fair comment. I watched the Hampton-Alexander report launch [challenging the private sector to get to 33 per cent of women on FTSE 350 boards, which was exceeded]. And it did strike me as slightly ironic that we would congratulate the private sector for doing what…

AR: … we failed to do?

CN: Yes. Kwasi [Kwarteng, business secretary] and Liz [Truss, women and equalities minister], both sort of championing the work they’ve not done. 

AR: Exactly. But it is very difficult to stand up for equality in cabinet when you’re in cabinet; unless you feel sufficiently confident about your own place in it, to advise the Prime Minister what he could do better. 

CN: Should there be a separate secretary of state for women and equalities? 

AR: Yes. It needs to have more muscle behind it. And I think you could do that, if you had a department – which had a senior minister running it – for women and equalities. 

CN: Which would immediately give you another cabinet position that you could fill [with] someone like Penny Mordaunt who, when she was doing the job, had so much passion for it. 

AR: She did, she did. And then you’d have somebody who owned the fact that gender pay gap reporting should not be put on hold while we’re in this pandemic. It’s even more important to make sure that equality persists. 

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