Why does Dave revere 'brassy' women? The PM loves making glamorous women tsars to fix everything from trade to teaching. But why do they have to be so brash?
Inspiration? Michelle Mone, Mr Cameron's latest tsar
To great fanfare, David Cameron has announced his latest Government tsar. This time, the role involves being an ambassador for entrepreneurs, with the aim to inspire a new generation of shopkeepers and small businesses.
So who has he chosen for such a crucial role, at a time when the British High Street is in dire straits? A glamorous — some might say brassy — blonde, who made her name in lingerie and likes to be photographed in her underwear.
We are told that 43-year-old former model Michelle Mone, founder of lingerie label Ultimo, will travel the country looking into the barriers that disadvantaged young people face in setting up their own companies.
Brought up in Glasgow’s East End, Michelle herself left school at 15 — with no qualifications — to become a model. She started her lingerie firm in her 20s, was awarded an OBE in 2010, and sold an 80 per cent stake in the firm last year in a multi-million-pound deal.
In her autobiography, released earlier this year, she revealed how she hired a private detective to spy on her husband. When she discovered he was with another woman, she trashed his £100,000 Porsche, put laxatives in his coffee, and cut up his clothes.
So is Ms Mone entirely suitable to represent the Government?
Explaining the appointment, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘There’s no one I can think of who’s better qualified to help young entrepreneurs from deprived backgrounds to turn a good idea into a flourishing business.’
Really? No one? An internet search of the leading female entrepreneurs in Britain would seem to suggest there are several other choices.
And to play devil’s advocate, I wonder how many of these meetings we’re told about will actually take place. If I sound a little cynical, it’s only because we have heard this story so many times before.
Here’s how it usually plays out. A glamorous businesswoman or female celebrity is appointed as a ‘tsar’, ‘ambassador’ or ‘envoy’ to advise Mr Cameron.
She does not have a clear job description as such, but is simply tasked with ‘going round the country’, or perhaps even the world, meeting people. She might head a task force, or be leading an inquiry or review.
Since Mr Cameron has been in office, and in the years running up to his time as Prime Minister, he has drawn into the corridors of power a long list of such characters.
Some are women of substance, who just happen to be attractive. Others possess somewhat dubious credentials and are best known for self-promotion.
Former Countdown star Carol Vorderman was made a ‘maths tsar’. Tamara Mellon, co-founder of Jimmy Choo, the luxury shoes and accessories empire, became a ‘global trade ambassador’. Mary Portas, TV presenter and former creative director of Harvey Nichols, was made a retail tsar charged with reinvigorating Britain’s High Streets.
Fell flat: Shoe designer Tamara Mellone
Handbag designer Anya Hindmarch became a trade ambassador. TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp was reported to be advising Mr Cameron on housing, though she denied her role had any official capacity.
Meanwhile, Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United, was made an ambassador for small businesses.
Last year, she was elevated to the Lords as a Tory peer — a far cry from where her career began.
Rescued from selling advertising space at LBC Radio by David Sullivan, one of Britain’s leading pornographers, she was fast made a director of his premium sex phone lines, and space-aliens-filled Sport newspapers.
Aged 25, the convent-educated Londoner became boss of Birmingham City football club.
More recently, she starred in the BBC1 series The Apprentice, as an aide to Lord Sugar.
Those who would defend such appointments argue that these women are clever, enterprising and talented. But the real question, surely, is how much have these women achieved in their policy roles? And what did they actually get up to on behalf of the taxpayer while they were basking in the title of government adviser?
In 2013, Ms Brady was part of Mr Cameron’s trade mission to China, chatting with the PM’s stepfather-in-law Viscount Astor on the plane. She also made a speech at the Tory Conference, outlining her desire to help more women into business.
Meanwhile, Miss Vorderman took part in a cringe-worthy photo opportunity with Mr Cameron outside the Houses of Parliament in February 2009 — apparently to promote a Tory taskforce on maths education.
You may remember it because the pair of them fell about while throwing snowballs at each other, next to a snowman that had been specially built for the occasion.
Ms Vorderman, a Cambridge graduate and former Rear of The Year winner, was brought on board supposedly to examine teaching methods.
And what did she announce as the result of her far-reaching inquiry? Two years later, in August 2011, she called for all pupils in England to study maths up until the age of 18. What a revelation!
Signed up in 2012, Mary Portas produced a report on the future of retail that so impressed Mr Cameron that he gave her a £1.2 million fund to regenerate some of Britain’s run-down High Streets.
The results were, to say the least, mixed. Twelve months later, shop vacancies had gone down in seven of the 12 ‘Portas towns’, but overall more shops had closed than had opened.
The Government insisted the pilots were working, saying the idea was to ‘harness the energy and enthusiasm of local people’.
But the impression remained that this was less about the revitalising the High Street, and more about revitalising the Prime Minister’s image.
Perhaps the most dubious of all the appointments was Tamara Mellon, a friend of Chancellor George Osborne, who has moved her main residence from Belgravia to a New York penthouse.
Simple solution: Carol Vorderman
She became a global trade envoy in 2010, but the next year it was reported that the shoe tycoon — who was once photographed naked but for a pair of high-heeled boots and a kitten to protect some of her modesty — had attended just one event in seven months, a reception at Lancaster House in London.
Her spokesman said that she was ‘deeply committed’ to the role and had planned to take part in a Government trip to South Africa that was cancelled.
Critics say the real reason Mr Cameron appoints these glamorous advisers is because there is such a dearth of women inside his administration.
Aside from Theresa May, the Home Secretary, it is hard to name another prominent woman on the front bench. Certainly, none of his other female ministers have become household names.
What’s more, the Prime Minister has long suffered from a problem connecting with female voters, not helped by his own crass behaviour at times. Gaffes such as publicly dismissing the Tory MP Nadine Dorries as ‘frustrated’, and telling a Labour shadow minister to ‘Calm down, dear’ during PMQs have hardly boosted his appeal.
A reputation for high-handed, public schoolboy chauvinism, whether or not truly deserved, has meant that Mr Cameron and his male-dominated, Eton-educated top table have had to look for ways to soften their image.
But surely female voters are not so gullible as to be fooled by the tokenism of bringing on board pretty celebrities to sweeten the Cameron line-up?
Insiders say that to really understand why Mr Cameron brings so many glossy — some would say brash — women on board, you need to appreciate that this is just as much about his personality.
Mr Cameron likes to have glamorous women around him. Ask anyone who really knows him and they will tell you that he has a soft spot for women whom critics might unfairly characterise as pushy broads.
The Prime Minister, who was head of communications at Carlton TV before he became a Member of Parliament, feels safe with savvy, slick people who are adept at networking. To be fair to them, some of ‘Dave’s babes’ have got pretty fed up with being wheeled out to make Mr Cameron look good over the years.
Kirstie Allsopp — a presenter of Channel 4’s Location, Location, Location — shared a platform with him only briefly, but after she failed to persuade ministers to scrap stamp duty on house purchases, her appearances waned, with her hinting that she wasn’t happy to be just window dressing.
Anya Hindmarch has been on several overseas trips to promote British business as a trade ambassador. But friends say the designer — whose bags are popular with stars such as Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson, Madonna and Claudia Schiffer — has been increasingly reluctant to risk being seen as too closely linked to the Government.
Of course, it would be fine if Mr Cameron had appointed one or two glamorous female outsiders to broaden the appeal of the Government and add colour to the sometimes grey world of politics. But hasn’t he taken the promotion of the ‘in-crowd’ too far?
In June 2010, he asked Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of discount website Lastminute.com, to expand her role as a UK Digital Champion to advise him on how online public services delivery could help to provide better and more efficient services, as well as getting more people online.
She was invited to sit on the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Board. In July 2010, Mr Cameron hosted an event at Downing Street to celebrate her Manifesto For A Networked Nation.
Political high-flier: Karren Brady now sits in the Lords
Three years later, she became Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, a crossbencher and the youngest woman in the upper chamber. She’s still just 42.
Joking about her new title on Twitter, she wondered whether it would entitle her to ‘free cocktails and nipple tassels’.
The irony is that there are many high-achieving women in this country who have important things to say, yet they are not given this kind of platform.
From 68-year-old Dame Marjorie Scardino, the business executive, to Helen Weir, chief finance officer of Marks & Spencer, Britain is bursting with female business brains of the truly heavyweight variety.
Miss Scardino became the first female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company when she was appointed CEO of the media giant Pearson in 1997. She was also a non-executive director of Nokia and former CEO of the Economist Group. During her time at Pearson, she tripled profits to a record £942million. Surely she would have a massive contribution to make as a government business adviser?
Dido Harding, the TalkTalk chief executive elevated to the House of Lords last year, is another example of an intelligent, successful but, dare I say it, ordinary-looking businesswoman.
She’s not eager to appear on television, but is determined to bring about positive change, chiefly making the internet safer for children and families.
Then there’s Diane Thompson, the hugely experienced executive who was the boss of Lottery firm Camelot until last year.But perhaps these women don’t tick all the boxes the Prime Minister seeks.
As one senior Tory MP said: ‘It is difficult to see how Cameron’s approach is anything more than window-dressing.
‘The women he brings on board are largely media confections and their appointment tells us everything we need to know about him. Once a PR man, always a PR man.
‘It’s a quick fix, designed to generate a few weeks’ headlines. What do they actually do?
‘Lane Fox used to come to meetings and rabbit on about the importance of e-commerce. Well, Martha, tell us something we don’t know.’
Many Conservative MPs fear it is all too transparent. ‘Women voters are not fooled by this,’ said one MP. ‘In fact, all this posturing with impossibly glamorous women actually winds them up more.’
Only time will tell whether Michelle Mone bucks the trend by genuinely helping large numbers of people — particularly the underprivileged — to start their own businesses.It would be nice to think that she might just make a difference. But given past evidence, we should not hold our breath.
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