Treasury minister Chloe Smith last night joined an exclusive club.
No it’s not the Bilderberg Group. Not much chance of an invitation there after her disastrous appearances on Channel Four News and later on Newsnight defending the government’s u-turn on fuel duty.
No she’s just been inducted into the ex-Next Big Things club. It’s a select intake of those of whom great things were expected. But bad news travel fast in modern politics and Twitter was abuzz last night and this morning at the general awfulness of her career-limiting performances.
Of course an individual minister taking a caning in an interview is neither here nor there, but Chloe Smith’s case exposes a deeper problem for David Cameron.
In fact he has two big problems: both with women.
The first is the growing sense that the PM is a bit of a chauvinist. It’s revealed in small things like his silly put-down to Angela Eagle in the Commons (“calm down dear”) and probably not helped by leaving his daughter in the pub the other week.
These are relatively trivial offences, compared to the differential impact coalition cuts are having on women’s lives, wisely picked up early-on by Labour’s frontbench and now used to bring home the very real effects of the government’s programme to women voters bearing the brunt of unemployment, tax hikes and service cuts.
His second problem is closer to home. A government reshuffle is due soon. Unlike most other PM’s Cameron is said not to believe in regular changes, allowing ministers to get to know their briefs properly. A commendable enough sentiment, but the government is in need of fresh faces and to prune the less effective ministers.
In a bid to tackle his problem in communicating with women voters, the logical impulse is to promote more female political talent. But it’s not until you look down a list of government ministers that you realise just how few women there are.
The attendant problem is that the women ministers he currently has are among the least effective performers in the government.
Take Conservative co-chairman, Sayeeda Warsi. It is of course modish to criticise her for weak performances and a lack of gravitas, but its only when you measure her against previous incumbents in the role that you see how out of her depth she is.
This was a job once filled by Quentin Hogg, Rab Buter, Iain MacLeod, Chris Patten, Norman Tebbit and Willie Whitelaw. Even her greatest admirers would not readily attach her name to that list.
It’s not about her gender – and certainly not her race – it’s the fact she is shown up time and again to be too inexperienced to front the government’s case competently.
Things aren’t much better looking along the cabinet table.
Take the near invisible secretary of state for Wales, Cheryl Gillan. She seems best-known for threatening to resign from the government over the planned route of HS2 through her constituency rather than for any particular policy success.
Likewise environment secretary Caroline Spelman is seldom talked of as promotion material.
While transport secretary Justine Greening appears to have just been left completely out of the loop of the chancellor’s decision to freeze fuel duty.
Cameron’s best performing woman minister (and one of his best, full-stop) is undoubtedly Theresa May. The home secretary is one of the government’s big success stories, taking on a department that proved the undoing of many of New Labour’s best while at the same time embarking on a bold policy agenda around police reform.
In a spirit of ecumenism, it is clear that there are many women Conservative MPs with real pedigree waiting on the backbenches.
I can’t see a tough former TV journalist like Anna Soubrey making a hash of a difficult interview. Or better still imagine the redoubtable Claire Perry settling for Jeremy Paxman treating her like a mouse being teased by a cat.
There will be many more tough Newsnight interviews for ministers forced to defend the government’s sticky wicket. In this crucible you are both tough and combative enough or you are not. Considerations of gender don’t cut it – nor should they.
The prime minister’s problem is that his junior ministerial ranks contain so few women to promote. There are only two women at minister of state level – the next rung down from the cabinet: Theresa Villiers at transport and the Lib Dem Sarah Teather at education.
Below that, there are only three women MPs at parliamentary under-secretary level: Maria Miller at the DWP and Anne Milton at the DoH. The other is the Lib Dem equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone.
The talent pool is so shallow that David Cameron will be forced to reach into his parliamentary party to rapidly promote women from the 2010 intake.
Meanwhile Chloe Smith is young enough to live to fight another day. And that was the problem with her appearances last night. It wasn’t a question of her gender, she is simply too young and inexperienced.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut