Women Are Cleaning Up Britain’s Brexit Mess

Who Is the U.K.'s New Prime Minister?
  • Not just Theresa May as Sturgeon mulls Scots independence vote
  • Almost 30% of Parliament members are female, a record

After male politicians led the U.K. into Brexit, women are taking center stage to clean up the mess.

Theresa May
Theresa May
Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Their solutions differ; their ambition doesn’t. Theresa May is preparing to become the U.K.’s second female prime minister and has promised to take Britain out of the European Union. In Scotland, where the leaders of the three biggest parties are women, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be one of the most pivotal figures in any Brexit settlement as she threatens a referendum on independence. And Northern Ireland’s assembly is co-headed by a woman.

It’s not an accident, say the women who have pushed successfully to increase the number of females in Parliament -- to a record 29.4 percent in last year’s election from just 9 percent in 1992. May will negotiate Britain’s EU departure with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among other European leaders, and after November could be maintaining the Atlantic alliance with Hillary Clinton, should she win the presidency.

“We’re reaping the rewards of years of hard work and we’re very lucky that we have the right woman in the right place at the right time,” said Anne Jenkin, a member of the House of Lords who, with May, co-founded Women2Win, a Conservative Party group that has campaigned to get more women elected to Parliament. As for the departures of the men who led Brexit, which put May in pole position: “It wasn’t a plan -- it was just that the testosterone blew them all up.”

Prime Minister David Cameron held his last question period in Parliament Wednesday, almost three weeks after losing a referendum he had called on EU membership. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s ambitions to become prime minister were torpedoed by rival Leave campaigner Michael Gove, who announced his own bid to head the governing Conservative Party. He lost in voting among Conservative parliamentarians.

FULL COVERAGE: Theresa May's confirmation as PM

The last challenger, Leave campaigner and former Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, dropped out after telling the Times of London that being a mother gave her an edge over May, who doesn’t have children. She ended her campaign Monday after a barrage of criticism. One irony of “mumgate” is that May had mentored Leadsom as one of the Conservative women elected to parliament in 2010 under Women2Win, Jenkin said.

Despite May’s success and the campaigning to get more female politicians selected, almost 26 years after Margaret Thatcher quit as prime minister women make up only 21 percent of Conservative parliament members. For the Labour opposition the figure is 43 percent, in part because the party has fielded only women candidates in some constituencies.

Limelight Sighted

“Women are not dominating the political scene. They’re just gaining the limelight,” said Frances Scott, founder of the 50:50 Parliament Campaign, which is pushing for women to make up half of the House of Commons. “We could be seeing a glass cliff scenario.”

The term “glass cliff” was coined by University of Exeter psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam to describe the tendency of corporations that are in deep trouble to appoint women to senior positions. Think Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! Inc., Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard Co. and Mary Barra at General Motors Co., all of whom acceded to leadership jobs at difficult times.

“Voters are turned off by some of the old boys’ network, and they want serious leaders,” said Rosie Campbell, a professor of politics at Birkbeck University of London. “There’s been a spat between the boys that’s left a door open for May to come in on the outside. She wasn’t part of the clique.”

Getting On

May’s no-nonsense demeanor may have helped her rise to the top during one of the U.K.’s biggest political crises since World War II; a common saying of hers is “I just get on with the job.” She’s backed getting more women appointed to corporate boards in the U.K. but not just as a feminist cause.

“More women in a company’s boardroom is not only good for society, it’s also good for that company’s bottom line,” she said in 2012 during a speech at the 30% Club, which campaigns to increase the number of women on boards.

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Nor did she mention women when she called for overhauling corporate governance, cracking down on executive pay and defending some business sectors from foreign takeovers. The Guardian reported in its Wednesday editions that May would put women, including Energy Secretary Amber Rudd and Justine Greening at international development, in key cabinet positions.

Britain ranks 48th out of 193 countries in terms of female membership in the lower house of Parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In the private sector, there are six female chief executive officers at FTSE-100 companies and women hold 26 percent of board seats.

For a QuickTake explainer about women on boards, click here

Like Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990 and had only one woman in her cabinet, many of today’s leading female politicians don’t make gender central to their political identity, Birkbeck’s Campbell said.  Arlene Foster, first minister of Northern Ireland, has blocked attempts to relax the region’s near-total ban on abortion.

In Scotland, Sturgeon has vowed to tackle gender inequality but concentrated most of her political campaigning on the possibility of another Scottish independence vote.

“Do I believe that women have the ability to save the world? Yes I do,” she told reporters Wednesday. “I think it is a hugely positive development that we’re seeing women emerge into positions of leadership.”

Angela Eagle said when making her pitch to depose Jeremy Corbyn as head of the Labour Party that gender should be considered: “The Labour Party, the party of equality, which pioneered anti discrimination, it’s about time it had its first elected woman leader.” Corbyn got a boost Tuesday when the party’s governing body said he would automatically be on the ballot for the leadership vote while Eagle will need about 50 nominations from Labour legislators.

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, said that when she was elected in 2011 the leaders of the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were all men, a situation she described as a “barren landscape.” She said she’d rather not have to answer questions about whether women are tough enough for politics or whether they change the style of government.

“I don’t know why people think that we act or argue differently,” she told reporters in London on Tuesday. “I would really like it if either your gender or indeed your sexuality didn’t have to be remarked upon at all."

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