Lucky Penny Mordaunt. She’s the latest minister to find themselves the holder of the women and equalities brief in the great pass-the-parcel of this role. It was created for Harriet Harman under the Labour government, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do with it. Since then, though the Tories have never quite understood what this Minister should do, other than chivvy other departments, they daren’t abolish it, lest they seem to be anti women and equalities.
The women and equalities pass the parcel has been incredibly awkward at times, with the job skipping Nicky Morgan, for instance, because of her opposition (at the time) to gay marriage. It has had to move around departments to prevent any embarrassment over certain ministers’ voting records.
Mordaunt’s appointment is a pretty smart move, though, given the emphasis that the International Development places on improving equality rights in developing countries. She has also shown an interest in the topic, which helps but is by no means something Prime Ministers seem to consider essential when trying to work out who on earth to give the job to.
This brings us to what on earth the minister who gets the job actually does with it. There isn’t much of an opportunity for anyone to legislate at the moment, given the government’s minority and Theresa May’s constricting mixture of political weakness and instinctive caution. Yet the biggest piece of legislation that the government is pursuing at the moment relates directly to Mordaunt’s new brief: the domestic abuse bill. That is the realm of the Home Office, but a properly effective bill would cover the functions of the work and pensions, health and housing, communities and local government departments. Perhaps Mordaunt’s role can be to keep the bill going (its timetable has already slipped significantly) and to ensure that it actually adds up to something impressive rather than a gesture.
The last piece of legislation on domestic abuse was the introduction of the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. That was a personal project of May’s when she was Home Secretary, and the new bill is the Prime Minister’s personal priority. Amber Rudd named domestic abuse as one of the really important aspects of her job when she took over as Home Secretary, but sector campaigners say they could tell the difference between someone who had personally decided to pursue the reform, and someone who was merely following their boss’s lead.
This brings us back to the real point of the women and equalities role. Harriet Harman made a success of it because she had personal projects that she wanted to pursue and would not let go of. If Mordaunt wants others – including her own party – to understand the point of her new job, she needs to have the same attitude.