Lucy Powell, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Sarah Newton, Pauline Latham and Nicky Morgan
Clockwise from top left: Lucy Powell, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Sarah Newton, Pauline Latham and Nicky Morgan © Alamy; Allstar; Photoshot; AFP

Nicky Morgan was dubbed the “Stepford minister” when she was promoted to the post of education secretary last July. Attractive, genial and warm, the 42-year-old was the perfect candidate to rebuild bridges with a teaching community at war with her predecessor Michael Gove — while also helping to front the Conservative election campaign.

But when we meet in her airy office on the seventh floor of the education department in Westminster to talk about women and politics, the education secretary and minister for equalities and women is quick to debunk perceptions that she is spineless or submissive.

As we settle into deep sofas and chat about our young children, she is affable and bright-eyed, seemingly unaffected by the gruelling 16-hour days. But her natural bonhomie fades when I ask her about the UK’s recent slippage to 75th in global rankings of female ministers.

“Disappointing,” she concedes, frowning as she slowly nods her head, “for the world’s oldest parliament, the country that had the first female prime minister in the western world. As a party, we had the first female member of parliament. I would be the first to say we need more women in politics.”

Morgan says she is looking for “real progress” in the election as she veers away from the party script to declare that she wants to see women accounting for at least 30 per cent of Tory MPs this May. Should the party fall short, “all and any options must be considered to close that gap,” including the dreaded all-women shortlists. “It’s not the party’s preferred route but I have no doubt that inevitably people will look at all the options. We do need a parliament that is more representative.”

It is the first time a senior Conservative figure has publicly set such a goal and it puts the education secretary on a collision course with the vast majority of MPs and party activists who deplore even the whiff of affirmative action. Senior colleagues Caroline Spelman and Maria Miller agree with Morgan — but they only said so after leaving high office. “To put it bluntly, Nicky is not with her party on this,” observes a fellow minister.

It’s an almost impossible target. Only one in six Conservative MPs is a woman, despite the efforts in 2010 to flood the benches with “Cameron’s cuties” through the A-list initiative, which actively promoted high-flying women. Four of those women from the 2010 intake have either already quit Westminster or are planning to step down in May after just one term.

This time around the party has made some progress, selecting women candidates in 31 per cent of its seats. But it is nowhere near enough to hit 30 per cent: the Electoral Reform Society predicts that after the election one in five Conservative MPs will be a woman.

“I would like to see how close we get to 30 per cent at the next election,” says Morgan, insistent that this goal is achievable even though it would require a near doubling of female Tory MPs on current numbers. “Let’s see when the dust settles on May 8. I am not a great fan of setting targets. But the point is 50 per cent of the electorate in our country are female and we need our parliament to look like the country.”

The 101 women Labour MPs dubbed 'Blair’s babes
The 101 women Labour MPs dubbed 'Blair’s babes' after Tony Blair’s election in 1997 © PA

Nearly two decades after 101 “Blair’s babes” descended on parliament following the 1997 election with a mission to blow open the old boys’ club, female participation in British political life remains stubbornly low. In the current parliament, just over one in five MPs is a woman. The UK is 57th in the world in terms of female representation in parliament. And when it comes to the Tories, only 16 per cent of the party’s MPs are female, compared to a third for Labour.

The FT has spent the past year interviewing more than 25 MPs, peers, ministers and academics about what they believe the barriers are to getting increased female participation in Britain’s 750-year-old parliament.

Abuse on social media, a critical press, antisocial hours, a gentleman’s-dining-club culture: all these factors are repeatedly cited by MPs as reasons why women are reluctant to stand for parliament or choose not to stay. Sarah Newton, the Conservative deputy party chairman in charge of candidate selection, says many women are not prepared to expose their families and children to the inevitable press scrutiny that comes with being an MP.

“I think it’s such a huge barrier that a woman is not allowed to have a professional life as a politician in the way that a lawyer or businesswoman is,” she says. “If I could wish for one of the barriers to be removed, it’s the press.” The other obvious hurdle is how women manage motherhood with a job that requires living in two places, regular evening work and a six or seven-day week.

Female MPs are far less likely to have children than the wider female population: nearly one in two has no children, against an average of one in five women in the UK. Those who do are more likely to have fewer than male MPs, and to have entered parliament when their children were older.

“These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers,” wrote Professor Sarah Childs of Bristol University and Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck in an article about their 2013 survey of MPs.

“I have wanted to be here for a long time,” says Pauline Latham, a mother of three who became a Conservative MP at the age of 62, having stood as a parliamentary or MEP candidate in 1999, 2001 and 2005. “But I realise now if I had come here 25 years ago it would have been very hard. I would have felt really torn, I wouldn’t have been as good an MP because I think it is so hostile to family-friendly working.”

Baroness Hayman, the 65-year-old crossbench peer, laughs heartily at the idea that women in politics have a hard time when she reflects what it was like for pioneering women in the 1970s. Newly wed and newly elected at just 25, she was the youngest MP in Harold Wilson’s 1974 administration and became the first serving politician to breastfeed her baby inside the Houses of Parliament. “It’s a better world now,” she says, describing her own “scarring” experience of becoming a new mother while serving in a Labour minority government.

When her first son Ben was born in October 1976, Wilson’s successor James Callaghan was barely clinging to power and the two main political parties were locked in a war of endless votes and all-night sittings. The Labour party whips spent night after night cobbling together majorities from the “odds and sods” — Liberals, the Scottish Nationals, the Northern Irish — as the Tories tried to sink the minority government. No Labour MP could be spared as the whips hauled the drunk and the sick through the voting lobbies in an effort to survive.

Baroness Hayman remembers it all vividly. “What could I do? I was a week out of hospital. I picked up the baby and I came. Can you imagine it? I was breastfeeding, and that was why I couldn’t abandon him. But also, I didn’t want to abandon him and come to work, because he wasn’t yet two weeks old.”

She was torn between trying to do “my duty to parliament and do my duty to my baby”. And, rather than sympathy, her new predicament sparked a strange hysteria among the political establishment. Hayman was denounced as a “militant feminist”. Journalists camped outside her home; she was attacked by columnists and by the public, outraged that she was nursing a newborn in Parliament.


Women in the UK parliament

The house authorities got themselves into a “terrible tizz” about the possibility that she would attempt to breastfeed in the chamber. “When I left Parliament, the chief doorkeeper [to the House of Commons] told me he’d been instructed by the Serjeant-in-Arms as to how much force he could use against me to stop me bringing the baby into the chamber. And of course I never tried to bring the baby into the chamber. I sat crying in the Lady Members’ room most of the time.”

“I still have the file of hate mail,” she says. “There was some from women, as well as men, which said: ‘How dare you think you can have it all?’” In the end her husband resorted to sifting through the post before she got to it in order to spare her the upset.

When she lost her seat in 1979, she was in some ways relieved. She went on to have three more sons before returning to the House of Lords in her forties to pick up her political career as a Labour peer. “I had the longest bloody career break in history,” she says. “I was 17 years out. I was very, very lucky, because I came here in 1996 and ended up a minister in 1997. I think my generation thought we had to be men. We had to pretend to be men. And I think that’s what I wasn’t prepared to do.”

Modern-day women MPs have a very different experience. Westminster now has a crèche in what was once the popular Bellamy’s bar — David Cameron used the nursery for his daughter Florence. Female MPs are able to take maternity leave; the Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson last year became one of only a handful of ministers to have a baby while in office and recently returned from maternity leave to resume her post as a business minister.

The house has also changed tempo to fit in with modern working lives. Parliamentary business used to run from the afternoon into the late evening so that “gentlemen” could attend to their estates or business interests in the morning. Now there is only one parliamentary session each week, which runs to 10.30pm on a Monday, allowing politicians to spend most evenings with their families or friends rather than with colleagues in one of the many dining rooms at the Palace of Westminster.

There are also a lot more women to share the experience of being an MP. Women speak of the camaraderie that cuts across party politics. “We do talk across the party lines and I see some of the other mums at the nursery too, so I know them better,” says Lucy Powell, the Labour shadow cabinet minister who has risen rapidly since becoming an MP in 2012.

“We just talk about normal things — shopping, telly, hairdressers — as well as if there is a particular issue that is a point of interest, say how a colleague has been treated badly in the chamber.” A close confidante of Ed Miliband, having managed his leadership campaign in 2010 when her daughter Katie was just a few months old, Powell is now running the day-to-day election operation as vice-chair of the Labour campaign.

The changes are not universally applauded. Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative minister and parliamentary aide to Margaret Thatcher, speaks for many of his colleagues when he expresses his contempt for the “glitzy Blair modernisation” agenda. “The atmosphere had changed enormously,” he says. “It was always said to be the best club in the world and in the evening you’d go to the smoking room and have a drink with colleagues. And you’d go and sit in the terrace on a balmy summer’s night. This is all part of the political process. It is not just putting your feet up. It is the bonding to which the Tory party attaches quite a lot of importance. It hasn’t totally died out but it is virtually finished.”

Some older MPs privately speak of their bafflement that women try to press on with political careers while also having families. One admits that he even asked a female politician “what she was doing here” when she told him she had very young children. “I think she was flabbergasted but it is an illustration of what I feel.”

The women MPs interviewed for this piece insist that they do not encounter pointed sexism in their daily lives in Westminster. But many — particularly on the Conservative benches, where they are a smaller minority — feel they are labouring in a political culture that is too white, heterosexual and male. “Women have learnt to survive in this male-dominant culture,” says Maria Miller, who quit as culture secretary last year after being engulfed in an expenses scandal. “If we can recognise there is a dominant culture problem we can address it . . . rather than saying it is women who are failing to thrive in parliament.”

“It’s almost like going back to an old boys’ public school,” says Mary Macleod, Tory MP and founding member of the all-party parliamentary group on women. Her colleague Margot James finds the chamber “tribal and aggressive” and says this “boo-ha” debate is not typically the way women choose to resolve conflict. “If the Commons was Ofsted-inspected, it would fail every time for bullying,” suggests Powell.

That braying public-school style is particularly evident on the Tory benches, say some Labour women: Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, went so far as to accuse Tory MPs of “utterly appalling” attempts to degrade women in debates in a radio interview in 2013. The formidable opposition front-bench MP Angela Eagle was furious when the prime minister told her to “calm down dear” in a testy exchange at the despatch box in 2011, as her colleagues rounded on him for being “patronising”.

But Amber Rudd, a Treasury minister, says the bullying culture is not just aimed at women. She mentions another widely reported exchange between Eagle and the prime minister a few months after the “calm down dear” furore. “I saw Angela Eagle, when David Cameron was talking about the economy, just doing this at him the whole time [waggles her little finger] — little willy. So it’s not just men that bully, it’s women too. It’s the culture of the place that’s got to change.”

Macleod has devoted much of her first term as an MP, through her all-party parliamentary group, to thinking of ways to make parliament more family-friendly and appealing to women. “Women at 22 per cent isn’t good enough,” she says. “I won’t be comfortable until we get near enough to 50 per cent. Parliament can and does change over time but we still have a long way to go.”

The group — which includes former ministers such as Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Keith Vaz — produced a report outlining a series of recommendations last summer. It called for harsher “sanctions” for unprofessional behaviour in the chamber, shortening sitting hours at Westminster to allow working parents to spend more time in their constituencies, and proposed a “gender audit” for the current expenses system, to make sure parents can afford homes in London and their constituencies big enough to accommodate their young families.

So far, little has come out of that report. But Nicky Morgan thinks improvements can be made to the parliamentary calendar to better align recess with school holidays and give MPs more weeks in their constituencies. “I think it’s [about] arranging things so that you are spending less time in Westminster and more time in your constituency, and for many that actually means then being able to play a bigger part in our families.”


Women in the Labour party

As for her own set-up, her seven-year-old son Alex is looked after by her architect husband Jonathan in their family home in Loughborough, while she works in Westminster, returning to her constituency for weekends. “It’s tough,” I observe to a member of her team. “Yeah, I think she really misses him [Alex].”

“The nature of the job I think is that it is not terribly family-friendly,” Morgan admits. “Certainly being a minister and being a secretary of state is even less family-friendly. But it is an important job.”

Some mothers are not prepared to make those kinds of sacrifices. Kitty Ussher, a former Labour Treasury minister, said that she quit politics in 2010 after deciding she could not give her two young children the family life she wanted for them while also pursuing her political career. “I wanted to be a normal family. Life is about choices and I chose to stop because I didn’t think it was going to work.”

Lucy Powell, who is raising her three children with her husband James Williamson, a hospital doctor, in her Manchester constituency, is also ambivalent about the prospect of juggling a cabinet position with her responsibilities as a mother.

“I have not had kids and gone through the pain of having kids and all the sacrifices to miss their entire life,” she says. “I could do a [ministerial job] being in Manchester most of the week. But the whole of the civil-service machinery would never give you the breathing space.” Powell worries that she would be tied to endless meetings in her department, unable to work remotely or flexibly. “It stops you from being able to make those judgments yourself. I am not going to be completely absent from my children.”

Vince Cable, the business secretary, who has championed voluntary targets to bring more women on to FTSE 100 boards, thinks flooding the system with more women will in time break down the barriers that MPs such as Powell and Ussher believe hold mothers back. “It’s the chicken and the egg,” he says. “I think the more women get into parliament and the more they get into senior posts in government will in itself change the culture. The way you break through is to make sure you have big enough numbers and that will change working practice.”

On a wet day last January, a clutch of new Tory women candidates and female journalists gathered at Baroness Jenkin’s Georgian townhouse in Kennington, south London, to get to know each other over a buffet lunch of salmon and potato salad. Selected to stand in safe retirement seats, this impressive crop of lawyers, businesswomen and civil servants will almost certainly be taking up positions on the Tory benches after May 7. They shared battle stories about the selection process and compared notes on how they were adjusting their lives to prepare for parliament — moving home, stepping down from their jobs, canvassing. Some talked about how they will manage young children and a career as an MP. One mother-of-two plans to carry on doing a two-hour commute to Westminster so that she can take her kids to school; others talked about what areas they wanted to hone in on when they became MPs.

For the irrepressible Baroness Jenkin, who set up Women2Win with MP Brooks Newmark in 2005 to bring more women into the Tory party, each of the nine candidates represents another victory in her fight to get more women to stand for parliament. “In theory everyone wants more women but when a solid, impressive man stands in front of the local association and looks like a typical Tory MP, they forget their good intentions,” she says.

But even with a growing bevy of women candidates, Baroness Jenkin thinks that Morgan’s target is unreachable this time around. “I am optimistic that there will be steady progress at the election in May but, with the unstable political situation and unreadable polls, I would be reluctant to make any prediction. Thirty per cent of the parliamentary party is a great goal but I am not sure that it is achievable at this election. That’s why we all have to keep our foot on the accelerator.”


Women in the Conservative party

Rosie Campbell, who is currently running an audit of parliamentary candidates for the impending election, also believes that transformational change is a “pipe dream” without affirmative action. Her research shows that while the Conservatives are making progress on getting more women to stand for parliament, there are far fewer women standing in winnable Tory seats — 28 per cent — compared with Labour’s 53 per cent.

“There could be incremental progress in May,” she says. “But international evidence shows targets are necessary to make a difference in the short to medium term.”

But even if the evidence supports Morgan’s view that some form of affirmative action might be necessary, the parliamentary party does not: Sir Gerald speaks for the vast majority of his colleagues when he denounces this sort of “social engineering” as “rubbish”. “Margaret Thatcher did nothing to engineer the advantages of women artificially. She got there by her own bootstraps and was convinced others could do the same.”

Harriet Harman, who has spent her long political career fighting for better representation for women, and Gloria De Piero, the shadow women’s minister, are in no doubt about what Morgan and her fellow colleagues should do: follow Labour and introduce all-women shortlists. “We can’t do all the heavy lifting,” sighs De Piero.

“I can’t tell you how controversial and bitter that controversy was,” says Harman, reflecting on the acrimonious internal battles she fought to introduce the policy two decades ago. “But we did it because it was the only thing that worked.”

“If you make the argument for change, there is inbuilt resistance. So [the Conservatives] really need someone to take it forward and stick with it, and work with the collective. For Labour women, working collectively suits our ideology; our crossover into feminism is very comfortable. Tory MPs have a different ideology and they have to find their own way forward.”

“We need a Harman figure,” says one female Conservative backbencher. “She took so much criticism early on in her career but what she and her acolytes effectively did was shut the men up. You don’t hear complaints from Labour men about all-women shortlists or women being put on the front bench six months after they were elected.

A lot of what we have to put up with is completely unacceptable in the Labour party.”

In Morgan, the Tory party might have found that figure. For the next six weeks, the education secretary will be devoting all her energies to fronting the national Conservative campaign and holding her marginal Loughborough seat. But if she wins that battle, she is prepared for a bigger fight to change her party once and for all: “We can’t go backwards.”

Elizabeth Rigby is the FT’s deputy political editor

Photographs: Alamy; Allstar; Photoshot; AFP; Anna Gordon; PA; Getty; FT; Dan Burn

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