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Politics can be sexist, but Arlene Foster was wrong to play the misogyny card

5 January 2017

5:13 PM

5 January 2017

5:13 PM

Let’s say you’re a rising minister put in charge of the department for enterprise. You have the great idea to incentivise businesses to invest in low-carbon energy by offering a subsidy for renewable fuel used. Unfortunately, something goes wrong in the planning or execution of the scheme, with the result that claimants are paid more for low-carbon fuel than the amount the fuel actually cost them. Market forces kick in, businesses use as much fuel as possible to gain the maximum profit, the fancy renewable energy scheme ends up £490 million over budget. The opposition, the media, and most importantly the public are understandably very upset, and call for you to resign. Do you:

A) Apologise profusely, take responsibility, and stand down

B) Find someone else in the department to scapegoat and fire them

C) Accuse your critics of being misogynistic for demanding your resignation

Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, has gone for option C. In her defence, she has also apologised, and I’m sure her team are searching behind the scenes for someone else to blame as well. But her main response to the suggestion that her mistake disqualifies her for higher office has been to cry sexism. People aren’t furious at her because she oversaw a scheme that paid recipients to waste as much government money as possible heating empty buildings, according to Arlene. No, it’s because she’s Northern Ireland’s first female leader. The whole £490 million debacle is just a smokescreen for misogyny.

Foster’s panicked reaction has got to be one of the most far-fetched, and therefore hilarious, political excuses of recent time. It’s right up there with Nigel Farage blaming unchecked immigration for the traffic jam that made him late for a meeting and the Labour party failing to disclose invoices for the EdStone due to an ‘administrative error‘. Foster clearly has a thing or two to learn from her Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon, whose SNP government is adapt at attributing literally everything that is going wrong in Scotland – from the deteriorating healthcare system to the schools crisis – to the Tories in Westminster. Or she could go all-out like the president-elect Donald Trump, and blame a faulty microphone, the rigged media, and her opponent’s apparent drug-taking for her poor performance. 

Women are making huge steps in British politics, which is a triumph. Currently 29 per cent of MPs are female, which isn’t enough, but it’s hardly negligible either. In addition to our prime minister, the leaders of all three main parties in Scotland are women, as is the leader of Wales’ Plaid Cymru. Thanks to the Richmond Park by-election, even the Lib Dems now have a female MP again.

All of these women have no doubt faced countless examples of sexism, from having their fashion choices critiqued instead of their policies, to having men scold them for being in ‘MPs-only’ areas. That’s important, and it needs to be called out and addressed.  But the flip-side is that blaming misogyny can’t be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for every female-led cockup. On the list of reasons people want Arlene Foster to resign, her gender is number 490 million and one.

Rachel Cunliffe is the deputy editor of Reaction 

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