LONDON (Reuters) - They were dubbed the “Blair Babes” — the 101 Labour women lawmakers elected when Tony Blair came to power in Britain in 1997 — who would transform gender imbalances in the British parliament.
But with three female ministers quitting Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s already limping government as he faces an expected drubbing in local and European elections on Thursday, women at the top of British politics are now being accused of staging the “revenge of the sisterhood.
It is an accusation they firmly reject: Jacqui Smith, Britain’s first female interior minister, insisted “there is no conspiracy here” as she confirmed her intention to quit.
But political commentators struggled to see this week’s resignations of Smith, communities minister Hazel Blears, children’s minister Beverly Hughes, along with a decision by former health secretary Patricia Hewitt to step down at the next election, as anything else.
The right-leaning Daily Mail tabloid ran banner headlines warning that a new sinister team of WAGs — a term devised for wives and girlfriends of super-rich soccer stars — had emerged from the corridors of parliament’s Palace of Westminster.
The “Women Against Gordon” had been gathering, it said, for all-female political dinners and hatching “plots” to turn against Brown if he failed to promote more women.
In the Times, political commentator Anne Thompson, warned “Hell hath no fury like the women scorned.”
She said senior Labour women who “have felt briefed against and bullied for two years” were fighting back.
Women working in British politics say it is still very much a male dominated environment, but are not keen to talk on the record about whether Brown allowed a macho culture to flourish.
Thompson said women “bore the brunt of Brown’s wrath” over an expenses scandal which has engulfed British politics, with Blears and Smith scolded while male colleagues like finance minister Alistair Darling got the prime minister’s support.
Many observers pointed to Caroline Flint — minister for Europe and another of the original “Blair babes” — as the next high-profile woman likely to abandon Brown’s sinking ship, although close colleagues said she had no such plans.
“She is not going to resign. Today, she is focused on getting out, encouraging people to vote,” her spokeswoman said.
Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society gender equality campaign group, said an “incredibly macho” culture was a worrying feature of British politics.
She noted that Brown had already halved the number of women in his cabinet from the days of his predecessor Tony Blair, when as many as 8 of around 26 posts were taken by women.
“There was already a step back when he appointed his first cabinet — he went from 8 to five,” she told Reuters. “Then there were four, and now there are only two left.”
Women’s Minister Harriet Harman and Treasury Minister Yvette Cooper are the only remaining high-profile women in the top echelons of government.
Brown is expected to reshuffle his cabinet in the wake of an expected drubbing in local and European elections on Thursday, and Rake said it was vital to see more women in the top team.
“There are plenty of qualified women amongst the ranks of Labour members of parliament,” she said. “Whether they want to work at the top of government is another matter. At the moment I don’t know whether it’s an attractive place for anyone to work.”
editing by Richard Balmforth