Theresa May has insisted that her government looks “more like the country it serves” after axing a string of white men in their 50s and 60s while promoting a number of younger, female and minority ethnic MPs.
The prime minister used the second day of her new year reshuffle to refresh the lower ministerial ranks after a difficult cabinet-level shake-up in which some ministers resisted attempts to move them.
In a blow to May’s authority, Justine Greening quit the government after refusing to take up a position at the helm of the Department for Work and Pensions and Jeremy Hunt persuaded the prime minister he should remain in a beefed-up role as secretary for health and social care – a decision that the Guardian understands scuppered Downing Street’s original plan to appoint Greg Clark as the new health secretary.
May was left facing criticism for sacking one female, gay minister, while giving in to male colleagues and failing to promote ethnic minorities.
Moreover, the Sutton Trust published an analysis claiming the new top team was more privileged than before, with more than a third who those who will be attending cabinet educated privately (five times the figure for the overall population) while almost half studied at Oxbridge.
Four of the 10 women attending meetings are not full members of cabinet, which means May’s leading team has a gender pay gap with men earning on average £138,688, 11% more than the women at £124,758.
May’s moves on Tuesday boosted the number of women in government from 30 to 37 and the number of ethnic minorities from four to nine. With almost 120 members of the government altogether, that means female representation has risen from 25% but is still just 30%.
However, the move was criticised in some quarters of her party. MP Philip Davies, who is known for his controversial anti-feminist views but who sits on parliament’s women and equalities committee, said there was now “a legitimate concern that some people may feel they have been hoofed out or not promoted simply because they are a white male”.
MP Michael Fabricant praised the promotions , but raised concerns about men being described as “pale and stale”.
May made clear that she did not believe that ability had been compromised at all, insisting the reshuffle brought in “fresh talent” that would help her focus on key areas such as housing, health and social care. “It also allows a new generation of gifted ministers to step up and make life better for people across the whole UK,” she said.
Among those promoted were MPs seen as rising stars within Conservative ranks such as Dominic Raab, who took over at housing, Alok Sharma, the new employment minister, Caroline Dinenage at health and Margot James, who moved to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
A day after he was forced to defend the controversial appointment of Toby Young to a universities watchdog, Jo Johnson moved to the Department for Transport, while Sam Gyimah replaced him at higher education.
A number of the newer 2015 and 2017 intakes moved up the ranks in a shift that advisers said was preparing the “talent pipeline” for a future reshuffle in which some of the individuals would enter cabinet.
Tuesday’s moves were seen as May preparing for a potential successor as Tory leader from the party’s next generation, after media reports about senior ministers such as Boris Johnson and David Davis eyeing up the role.
Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, welcomed a “more representative line-up” but added: “The party still has a long way to go to get more women into politics. Just 21% of Tory MPs are women. And we have to transform the culture in Westminster which has normalised sexual harassment.”
She said it was good to see more female whips, but it would have been better to have a woman as chief whip and suggested it felt like an “afterthought” to make Amber Rudd minister for women and equalities.
Meanwhile, the decision to promote Suella Fernandes, who chairs the European Research Group of backbench Tory Brexiters who have urged the government to be ready for no deal, caused a backlash from opposition politicians. The MP will be joining her colleague and former head of the ERG, Steve Baker, and the secretary of state, David Davis, who was also an outspoken leave campaigner, at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).
Jenny Chapman, the shadow Brexit minister, said: “Theresa May has chosen to use this reshuffle to appoint yet another extreme voice to the Brexit department. Suella Fernandes has absolutely no interest in negotiating with the EU.
“She wants the UK to crash out of the EU without an agreement no matter the damage that would do to jobs and the economy. This decision once again shows the prime minister putting her own survival above the national interest.”
Labour MP Alison McGovern, a supporter of the Open Britain campaign group, called it a “capitulation by the prime minister”, adding: “Suella Fernandes is the second chair of the hard Brexit-supporting European Research Group to be appointed as a DExEU minister in the past seven months.” She called on May to reverse her decision to leave the single market and customs union.
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