You might currently be experiencing an odd sense of deja vu. That’s because I wrote a post with a very similar title to this – Nicky Morgan: the Minister for Women who doesn’t believe in equality for all women – just about three months ago.
Back then, David Cameron had been forced into a mini-reshuffle of his cabinet by the resignation of Maria Miller because of …er, what was it now? being insufficiently apologetic in a public apology, was that it? Miller’s resignation had created a bit of a headache for the prime minister, not so much in the awarding of her main Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport portfolio (that was handed readily enough to Sajid Javid) as in the handling of her secondary role as Minister for Women and Equalities.
The problem Cameron faced was that the Women and Equalities portfolio had to be given to someone of cabinet level, because any suggestion he was downgrading the importance of the role would have been politically toxic. The Minister for Women had – for pretty obvious reasons – to be a woman, and the Minister for Equalities had – for very similar reasons – to be someone who was in favour of equality. (In practical terms ‘in favour of equality’ meant someone who was in favour of LGBT equality, since the legislation for equal marriage in England and Wales had been the only major equalities Bill put through the current UK parliament.) So, to recap, Mr Cameron was looking for a woman who was in, or could be promoted to, the cabinet and had voted for marriage equality.
This proved to be an insoluble conundrum for a prime minister who headed a parliamentary party that was 84% male, and in which only about two out of every five MPs had voted for marriage equality, so he took the decision to split the portfolio. The incoming Culture Secretary – who had voted in favour of equal marriage, but was a man – was made Minister for Equalities, while Nicky Morgan – who was a woman, but had voted against equality – was made Minister for Women, and granted permission to attend cabinet in that capacity.
All in all this was a pretty unsatisfactory fudge. It blurred the government’s approach to equality (who should lesbians subjected to misogyny and homophobia turn to for help – the Minister for Women, or the Minister for Equalities?), and it meant that the official government champion of female equality didn’t support equality for all women. But it was this unsatisfactory fudge that persisted from early April until mid July.
That all changed today, with David Cameron’s last (planned) reshuffle ahead of the 2015 UK elections. The headlines have mostly focussed on the fact that Nicky Morgan has been promoted to Education Secretary. (That’s the Education Secretary for England, of course – Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all have Education Secretaries of their own.) Rather less attention has been paid to the other thing revealed in the tweet announcing her promotion, that she ‘has been appointed as […] Minister for Women & Equalities’.
In other words, the decision to split the Women and Equalities portfolio has proved to be remarkably short-lived. The Equalities part of the job has been removed from Sajid Javid and handed to Nicky Morgan – the woman who just a few short months ago was considered unsuitable because she had voted against marriage equality. This means it’s no longer just lesbians and bisexual women who have as their champion in government a woman who is prejudiced (in the literally correct sense that she has pre-judged every same-sex couple and found them all unworthy of marriage) and thinks it right to discriminate (again in the literally correct sense of drawing a distinction between same- and opposite-sex couples, and treating them differently on the basis of that distinction). Now gay and bisexual men also get to share in that indignity, which is, I suppose, a kind of equality…
If you dig more deeply, it turns out there is slightly more to this than first appears. And I really do mean dig deep. First of all you have to follow the link from the prime minister’s Twitter to the Ministerial Appointments page. There’s nothing on that page itself to indicate that anyone other than Morgan has anything to do with the Equalities portfolio, but if you follow the link from there to the page giving all the details of the appointment of Nick Boles to a junior ministerial position split between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education – well there you find out that he now delights in the title of Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities. That’s a new job title (the previous incumbent was simply Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise) to reflect the fact that Boles has had responsibility for ‘equal marriage implementation’ added to the other duties he has taken over from his predecessor.
It’s pretty clear, I think, that this is a nakedly political gesture, designed to give David Cameron some cover in the event that LGBT people start kicking off about Nicky Morgan being made Minister for Equalities. There’s no reason for responsibility for implementing marriage equality to be split out from the rest of the Equalities portfolio, other than the expedient of making sure that the minister in charge of it is not one who voted against marriage equality. And there’s no reason for a small bit of Equalities work being added to the responsibilities of the Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, other than that the new incumbent in the post, Nick Boles, is himself gay. That’s clearly intended to reassure, or at least to mollify, LGBT people who are worried or aggrieved about an opponent of equal rights for same-sex couples being put in charge of LGBT equality.
There’s one big problem, though, with this attempt to reassure and to mollify. Nick Boles is a Minister of State, and Nicky Morgan is a Secretary of State. In fact, she’s his Secretary of State, given that she heads both the Equalities and Education portfolios. That means that she’s his boss, and that he reports to her. It also means that it’s she who has ultimate responsibility for implementing marriage equality, because it’s she who has to supervise and oversee the work of the junior members of her ministerial team.
When he split the Minister for Women and Minister for Equalities portfolios, David Cameron made sure to specify that both reported directly to him, so as to ensure that the Minister for Women was not subordinate to a man (other than himself) and the Minister for Equalities was not subordinate to someone who opposed LGBT equality. He also ensured that both Ministers attended Cabinet, thus making sure that neither was dependent on the other for getting the interests of those they represented raised at the top table.
Both those safeguards have now been dropped. That means that the de facto Minister of State for LGBT Equality (he may not officially have that job title, but it’s pretty clear that’s what Boles is) reports to someone who is on the record as opposing equality for LGBT people. And it also means that LGBT people are now represented in the UK Cabinet by someone who is so deeply opposed to our rights that she could not even bring herself to abstain on marriage equality in England and Wales, but had to actively vote against LGBT rights.