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Here comes the God-awful sexist tosh

SO this new Cabinet, then, is "modern Britain" - 96% white, 74% male, 65% privately or grammar school educated.

It's hard to see how the Westminster reshuffle, in which three women were promoted to Cabinet roles, can really be declared, as it was by David Cameron last week, one that "reflects modern Britain", a country that is more than half female, 15% from an ethnic minority and 90% comprehensive school educated.

Nevertheless that was the message that was brazenly delivered, and it was done so via what the Daily Mail called "The Downing Street catwalk" - a succession of female arrivals at Number 10 which the paper turned into a glitzy double-page spread. In it they appraised the new ministers' handbags, outfits and hair. Some called this demeaning to women. And it was.

But, to be fair, the paper was only reflecting what the Tories were putting out. They, not the media, made the reshuffle into a gender parade. They promised a purging of the "male, pale and stale", and then delivered a small display of what could be called the female and fresh, but equally pale, marching up to 10 Downing Street. The way the Conservatives presented their new batch of women, and the moment at which this came - 10 months before a general election - was as demeaning as the catwalk comparison. One of the promotions wasn't even a new post, just Esther McVey, already employment minister, being drafted in to do time in the Cabinet.

The Daily Mail, of course, was just doing what it always does: turning anything involving women into a fluffy glamour or lifestyle piece (and to be fair, the paper is not alone in doing this). Disappointingly, however, the rest of the media seemed all too happy to go along with the story, splashing on pictures of Esther McVey's thigh-flashing outfit.

But even if there have been critics, the party still succeeded in getting across its female-wooing message that there were more women in power - however few. In reality, the story could equally have been 12 "male, pale and stales" being moved about or replaced by mostly new "male, pale and slightly less stales". But that wasn't what we got. We mostly got the "here come the girls" story, complete with hair and nails.

This spin has had plenty of critics. The Independent hit back with a "here come the boys" satirical article illustrated with shots of suited Cabinet men. "Too often," it said, "we judge these men by their policies, rather than what they wear, how many children they have, and whether they flash any thigh. It's just not good enough."

Meanwhile, to suggest that these female politicians were just a pre-election marketing ploy is in itself demeaning and patronising to Nicky Morgan, Liz Truss and Esther McVey, who got the new Cabinet positions. It implies that they are not there for their skills. They may be, and probably are, more than worthy of their roles, even if cynically placed there - Liz Truss, for instance, is tipped as a possible future Conservative leader, and at 38 is the youngest ever female Cabinet member.

However, it was not Truss but former television presenter McVey that scooped the headlines and was dubbed a new fashionista on the block for her perfect coiffure, Whistles outfit and thigh-slit dress. Strikingly, she didn't seem to think the Daily Mail's catwalk spread was at all demeaning. "All I can say," she said, "is it's fantastic having women in powerful positions in the papers."

There was something a little triumphalist about the way she did the rounds of the post-reshuffle television interview slots. She had the air of a woman who knew she had done her job well. And, indeed, she delivered it all (in her northern accent, perhaps courting another set of voters) with breathtaking flair. As one male presenter, grilling her over the length of her skirt slit, squirmed, she asked: "Did you think it becoming?"

However, though vaguely enjoyable, McVey's appearance didn't seem like any real triumph for women. Yvette Cooper was right when, pre-reshuffle, she predicted the promised female appointments would "look really like last-minute worry about votes because he knows he's got a blind-spot about women".

Three more women is, of course, better than no more, but it looks like a desperate and rather pathetic gesture, and is hardly one that, once the hype dies down, is going to convince those women voters.

Meanwhile, we are left with the feeling that this is a story we have seen before. We in Scotland are familiar with it. One thinks of Alex Salmond's promotion earlier of this year of two women to his Cabinet, bringing up his woeful female Cabinet representation of only a quarter to 40%, and prompting accusations of tokenism.

In the UK we are trapped in some endlessly repeating loop, in which parades of women are trumpeted ("Blair's Babes", the original Holyrood 37% female intake of 1999) and the same complaints made (too much focus on how they look and dress).

Some of these moments are significant gender shifts - but not this one. This reshuffle could only be presented as a positive because Cameron's original Cabinet contained so appallingly few women. The move - with all its style and hype - is about making things look better when they are not. And perhaps that really is "modern Britain" for you.

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