Boris Johnson is facing criticism over his appointment of the Brexit negotiator David Frost to a full-time ministerial job and a place at the cabinet table, which will put the proportion of female UK cabinet ministers at one of its lowest levels in recent years.
Five women are full members of Johnson’s cabinet, making up just 21.7% of its 23 full members, now to include Lord Frost, appointed to lead on Britain’s relationship with the EU. One of those five, the minister without portfolio Amanda Milling, is unpaid. The attorney general, Suella Braverman, attends cabinet but is not a full member.
In 2015, David Cameron appointed seven women, making up 30% of 22 cabinet posts, according to a UK government briefing paper, and the highest number of concurrent women cabinet ministers was eight (36%), from May 2006 to May 2007 under Tony Blair.
Felicia Willow, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, said: “Women make up 50% of the population and yet we continue to see men dominate positions of power in our society. The pandemic has brought the problems of an overwhelmingly male government into sharp focus. The policy response to Covid has disproportionately impacted women at work, financially, and in the home. Women have been inadequately represented in government, in cabinet, and in Sage [the Scientific Advisory group for Emergencies].”
She added: “We simply shouldn’t be going backwards on equality. The prime minister has committed to supporting a 50/50 parliament; appointing a 50/50 cabinet would show how serious he is about achieving this.”
Grilled by fellow Conservatives on equality in the cabinet during a tense liaison committee hearing last year, Johnson was unable to say how many women in top jobs would be “enough” to secure proper gender representation.
While his first cabinet was hailed as the most ethnically diverse, with six ministers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, there are now just four BAME full members, making up 17.4%.
The cabinet compares unfavourably on gender with the numbers of women in senior ministerial posts in the devolved nations. In Scotland, seven out of 12 cabinet secretaries are female. Of nine ministers in Wales, five are women. The Northern Ireland executive has six women among 12 executive ministers.
In a January 2020 Women in Politics report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which ranked countries according to the percentages of women they had in ministerial positions, Spain topped the league with 66% – 10 female ministers out of 15 – with Finland in second place, according to publicly available information. It ranked the UK in 49th position, trailing countries including Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Korea.
Frost will replace Michael Gove as the UK chair of the partnership council, the body set up to settle disputes resulting from the trade agreement, and will take Gove’s role chairing the withdrawal agreement joint committee.
Labour’s Emily Thornberry, the shadow international trade secretary, has criticised the fact that the person charged with managing the UK’s post-Brexit trading relationships with Europe is “someone who has never been elected by anyone in this country, and won’t be accountable in the House of Commons to any of us who have”.
Frost has been described as a low-key figure, who largely shuns the camera, and a Brexit true believer. Educated at Nottingham high school, he studied French and history at Oxford where he gained a first.
After joining the Foreign Office he was posted to Brussels in 1993, where he is said to have become disenchanted with the European “super-state”. He left the diplomatic service in 2013 to become the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.
Johnson made him his political special adviser after the 2016 Brexit referendum and as prime minister promoted him to chief adviser and negotiator on Europe. He was given his peerage in September.