Shabby reshuffle: promotion for women - or just an insult?

Senior Tory peer furious at lack of Cabinet rank for Lady Stowell: and Mrs Gove isn't impressed either

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:19 ON Thu 17 Jul 2014

While Michael Gove tries to pretend he's happy about his new role as Chief Whip, and David Cameron continues to insist that it does not mark a demotion for the former Education Secretary (despite his £36,000 a year pay cut), Mrs Gove – aka Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine - has made it very clear what she thinks.

Vine simply retweeted without comment an article in the Mail by Max Hastings headlined: "A shabby day's work which Cameron will live to regret". In his piece, Hastings described Gove as a courageous reformer to rival even Margaret Thatcher and said his sacking had "shocked Middle England".

Vine also offered a link to a Times cartoon suggesting the prime minister would be grateful if her husband smothered himself.

Mrs Gove's resentment is shared by many on the right wing of the Tory party, from where the backlash over this week's government reshuffle is growing. The Mole can see their point: the more you examine it, the more the reshuffle looks like a shabby con.

And Cameron is not the only one who should hang his head in shame – it's also been a bad week for the Westminster lobby journalists who fell hook line and sinker for the Downing Street bait that this was a “reshuffle for women” as the PM replaced Gove with Nicky Morgan, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson with Liz Truss, and Lord Hill, the Leader of the Lords, with Tina Stowell and brought Esther McVey into the Cabinet.

What has emerged, however, is that while McVey is now allowed to attend Cabinet, she must do so in in her existing junior role of employment minister, while Lady Stowell will, like McVey, be able to attend Cabinet, but without the full Cabinet rank enjoyed by her predecessor, Lord Hill.

In short, both women are being treated by Cameron as window-dressing – every bit as insulting as the Mail's appalling coverage of McVey's legs and "catwalk" wardrobe.

In the case of Lady Stowell, the insult has infuriated at least one peer, the (until now) ultra-loyalist Lord Forsyth, a former Cabinet minister and close friend of Lady Thatcher in her fading years.

Forsyth said in the Lords yesterday: "It is vital that the Leader of the House has the authority of a Cabinet minister, especially given the large volume of legislation that comes from the other place undebated and unconsidered.

"She needs the authority to be able to say to other Cabinet ministers, 'This will not wash', and to say to the Prime Minister, 'I think you need to think again'."

Forsyth will not be the only one angered by the insult to Lady Stowell, who earned her promotion by steering the very controversial gay marriage legislation through the Lords as a junior minister.

Comprehensive-educated in Beeston, and a former Civil Service secretary, she has fought her way to the top through her own competence, and perhaps more than anyone in the reshuffle earned the right to become a Cabinet minister.

Yet she is not accorded that respect by Cameron, while William Hague, who has made it abundantly clear that he's bored with politics and wants out at the next election, gets to keep his Cabinet rank as Leader of the Commons.

Cameron has others seething with resentment, too. Owen Paterson, upset at being dumped as Environment Secretary, spent Prime Minister's Questions yesterday standing at the end of the Commons chamber with Liam Fox - who had turned down the “insult” of being brought back to the government as a junior minister – glaring at Cameron.

The PM won't be be too worried about Paterson – he's considered too lightweight to carry much backbench support. And it seems Michael Gove is taking his demotion with reasonably good grace (whatever Mrs Gove might think), though he will have enjoyed being cheered to the rafters at a meeting yesterday of the 1922 Committee addressed by his nemesis Theresa May, in a show of backbench support for his attempt to bring the Three Rs back to state schools.

The real threat to Cameron now comes from the Lords. This is the first time since the Second World War that the upper house has not had a single minister of Cabinet rank. It is being seen as not just an insult to women but an insult to the Lords. And Cameron will need their support to get any legislation through before the general election. ·