The only surprising thing about Friday’s parliamentary debate on ratifying the Istanbul Convention is the surprise expressed at the blatant attempt by Philip Davies MP to prevent Parliament from doing so. Perhaps that is the point: we should be so appalled by the ramblings of a reactionary buffoon that we miss the deeper skullduggery being worked by the Conservative Party against equality and diversity.
For just over an hour and a quarter, self-important bubble Davies, supported by sycophantic squeak, Chris Chope MP, talked and talked and talked in vain hope that the proposal would run out of time and fail. Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire spoke for many, observing: “That is 78 minutes that I will never get back”.
His thesis, that men suffer violence too, and until parliament does something about violence against men it should absolutely do nothing about violence against women is not new, and not interesting. It is unlikely that he applies the same principle to Brexit: the whole Brexit and nothing but the hard Brexit, else let’s call the whole thing off!
Nothing new, either, in his contention that the best way to promote equality is imprison more women. But Davies has form. Rarely out of the pages of the Express or Mail, if the cause is progressive, he is against it.
And after successfully filibustering debates on rogue landlords, payday loans and support for disability care, no doubt he thought that the Istanbul Convention (named, shockingly, after a Turkish city) would be easy.
Were this the only reason he made headlines last week, one could pass easily by. Parliament has always had its fair share of reactionaries, and if the voters of Shipley ever rejected Davies, never fear: there’ll be another one along in a minute.
Minister for mansplaining
But this was just one half, likely the less important half, of his headline-grabbing antics. For, on Monday, he was elected, unopposed, to fill a Conservative vacancy on the Women and Equalities Committee, an independent parliamentary committee that has done much to bring the government to account for its record in this area.
Why? Davies may genuinely believe he has important insight to deliver. He has a long history of opposing policies proposed solely, he argues, on grounds of “sentiment”; so his election is a fitting antidote to echo chamber politics.
Career move? Quixotic leap in the dark? The first step in a progression that will eventually see Davies elevated to the yet-to-be-created post of Minister for Mansplaining?
Conservative indifference to inequality?
Or something more darkly calculated? His election neatly leveraged Friday’s intervention, turbo-charging his personal crusade against “political correctnesses”.
Meanwhile, he gains an even higher profile in his fight for inequality, and not just against women’s rights. Better yet, he is well placed to harry, delay and disrupt the work of the Committee? Is that the real endgame here?
Jess Phillips, also a member of the committee, dismissed his appointment, predicting that “he will have little effect”. We shall see.
Still, it was Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, who put her finger on the real issue. Well, almost. On Tuesday, she said: “It is shocking that no other Conservative MP cared enough about equality to put themselves forward against a man who has denied that violence against women and girls is a problem in the UK.”
His election to the committee, she continued: “raises serious questions about just how much the party of Government really cares about women’s equality.”
Or Government plot?
There it is: the nub of the matter. Is it truly imaginable that no-one in Government or Whips’ office had the least inkling of Davies’ plans? And even if unaware, why allow this travesty to proceed?
Where was the arm-twisting? Why no rival candidate? The official answer to the last is that it is just “not done”, by the Tories, or by Parliament generally. Once nominated, Davies’ name would have gone to the Conservative1992 committee: it is believed he was unopposed, and convention is that the committee would never throw out an unopposed nominee, however unsuitable.
As Tories, so Labour. Thus, when Andrew Bridgen opposed Keith Vaz’s nomination to the Justice committee it was considered very bad form. The nominee is put to a committee of selection which nods it through: finally, it goes forward in a motion to the House.
So cock-up, not conspiracy? After all, if the Defence Committee can tolerate a sole anti-Trident voice (Douglas Chapman, MP), surely the Women’s Committee can cope with Davies? Nonetheless, there may be more to this than meets the eye.
Unless and until the Labour Party achieves some sort of coherence, it is a peculiarity of this parliament that opposition to a Government with a truly precarious majority arises in the oddest places: powerful individual performers, such as Keir Starmer and Angela Eagle; and dynamic parliamentary committees, of which the Women’s Committee, chaired by Maria Miller is one of the most dynamic.
Miller is one of the most talented, high profile Tory backbenchers not brought back into government post-2015: and her Committee has regularly taken the government to task on a range of issues: on Traveller communities, on transgender rights, on disability, and on employment opportunities for Muslims. Most embarrassingly for the Brexit-means-Brexit crew, her committee is working to ensure the UK retains strong equalities after we leave the EU.
Embarrassing? Much. Thorn in side? Definitely. So scarcely surprising if the Government decided that a little bit of creative disruption would not come amiss. Plot? Of course not. You’ll find no Whips’ fingerprints here.
But convenient: and if “convention” dictates that Davies must be allowed to proceed, best not to intervene. Because anything else would be “bad form”, doncha know, and observing form and tradition over new-fangled nonsense like women’s rights has always been the British way.
Almost, a fundamental British Value ( © Sajiv Javid).
Note: a shortened version of this piece can be found over at politics.co.uk