Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
There are four Great Offices of State: Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. For most of their history, all four positions were held by white men. But no longer. In fact, the last time it happened was in the dying days of the New Labour government, when the incumbents were Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, David Miliband and Alan Johnson.
Over the last 13 years, it’s been a rather different story. For a start, the white male monopoly on the big four positions has never been reestablished. At first, this relied upon Theresa May’s six year tenure as Home Secretary. But after the Leave vote in 2016 — supposedly the harbinger of xenophobic Little Englanderism — the Conservative Party became increasingly diverse, especially at the top.
Especially notable was Liz Truss’s Cabinet, which for the first time in British history featured no white men in the Great Offices. Admittedly, that came to an end when Jeremy Hunt replaced Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor — but an even more significant development may now be on the cards.
If, as rumoured, Rishi Sunak replaces Hunt with his close ally Claire Coutinho, then there will be no white people at all in the big four jobs (assuming that James Cleverly stays at the Foreign Office and Stella Braverman at the Home Office).
Who would this annoy? Racists and sexists obviously, but ironically also those who insist that the Conservative Party is racist and sexist. They’re already infuriated by the flourishing of diversity at the top of the Conservative Party, so if Coutinho does make it to Number 11, we can expect more cope-and-seethe from the grim ideologues of the woke Left.
The most obvious line of attack is that Downing Street is merely “window dressing” — that is, using ministerial appointments to distract attention from its wicked Tory policies.
It’s an easy accusation to make, because by, its very nature, a reshuffle is a carefully orchestrated process. Furthermore, it is to some extent performative. For instance, in 2019, Boris Johnson appointed high profile Eurosceptic to senior roles to send the message that he would indeed get Brexit done.
So to test the window dressing hypothesis we should compare how women and ethnic minorities fare in reshuffles with how they do in Conservative leadership contests — i.e. very opposite of a carefully orchestrated process.
A prime example is what took place over the summer of 2022 — a hyper-competitive and frequently chaotic free-for-all in which no one received any special favours. So did the white men elbow aside their non-white, non-male rivals?
Not a bit of it. You may recall that eight candidates were nominated — of which only two of them were white males: Tom Tugendhat who finished in fifth place and Jeremy Hunt who came last.
OK, that’s one contest. Perhaps it was just a fluke. But if you look at the odds for the next Conservative leader, there are no white men among the front runners. Lord Frost is the foremost pale and male candidate, but not being an MP, he isn’t eligible. Furthermore, he finds himself behind a top five comprising Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, James Cleverly, Suella Braverman and Gillian Keegan.
At this point, I’d like to make something crystal clear — which is that I have absolutely zero problem with the success of our female and non-white MPs. We should be proud to be a party where the glass ceiling has shattered into a thousand fragments. Conservatives put the first Jewish Prime Minister into Downing Street, then the first female Prime Minister (and the second and the third) and, most recently, the first Asian Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Labour and the Lib Dems are led by a couple of white guys called “Sir”.
And yet there’s is a rather awkward question to be asked here about our white male MPs: Why are they producing so little in the way of leadership material?
It’s not as if the talent pool has been artificially drained. Unlike Labour, we have no all-woman shortlists or other diversity quotas. And though the parliamentary party features more female (88 out of 352) and non-white MPs (22 out of 352) than ever before, it is still overwhelmingly white and male. There are literally hundreds of them to choose from, yet no frontrunners for leader.
Perhaps the constraint is further up the greasy pole. Specifically, is our desire to present ourselves as a modern and diverse party holding back white men from achieving Cabinet rank and therefore a high profile?
Let’s take a look at the numbers. The ConservativeHome Cabinet league table lists 31 ministers, of which all but one (Lord True) are MPs. Of those 30, nine are female. Of the 21 men, two are non-white: Rishi Sunak who is the current leader and James Cleverly who is the only male Cabinet member who is a top tip for next leader.
That leaves 19 white men. Some of them have run for leader before e.g. Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, a few might run in a future contest, but despite their numerical preponderance not one of them is a current favourite. Furthermore, if you look at the September league table, eight of the ten least popular Cabinet ministers are white men.
From this one might draw two conclusions: firstly, that there’s nothing artificial about our diversity success story; and secondly that we’ve got a problem with white male underperformance.
But if the latter is the case, what explains it?
Could it be that, in these politically correct times, white male Tories are suffering some crisis of self-esteem? Er, no. When one thinks of the leading specimens of this era i.e. the Bullingdon Club trio of David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, a crippling lack of confidence is not obviously among their weaknesses.
Quite the opposite, in fact. There are a number of plausible scenarios in which, between them, these three men could have led the Conservative Party for 20 years or more. But in each case their time at the top has been cut short — largely because of their own easily-avoided errors.
We can also look at the various scandals that have winnowed the Conservative parliamentary ranks since the last election. Again, an excess of humility does not appear to be a common causal factor.
In my view, it’s time to take a long-hard look at the selection process for Conservative candidates. Some excellent efforts — for instance by Women2Win — have been made to talent spot and support female and ethnic minority candidates, but the evidence suggests that star quality needs to be actively sought out and nurtured among the rest of the population too. Just because there are plenty of white males who feel no reticence in presenting themselves for selection, it doesn’t mean that they’re the white males we need.
The truth is that becoming, and then being, an MP is an ordeal. The cynical response is that no one is forced to put themselves through it — but if that’s your attitude, then don’t complain about the quality of our politicians.
If we want better people to govern our country, then we need to actively seek them out and encourage them to step forward. It’s an effort that must apply across all demographic groups, because, to be frank, we’re in no danger of over-supplying the market.