It takes a certain set of tools to turn a golden opportunity to engage with hundreds of thousands of women on International Women’s Day into an unmitigated PR disaster, and Penny Mordaunt MP has somehow managed to pull it off. I’ve met Penny Mordaunt a few times in Portsmouth over the years while I was on Council-related business, and she has always seemed perfectly likeable and pleasant. But future Prime Minister material? Not unless courting disaster is now seen as prerequisite rather than unfortunate happenstance.
This story involves a ‘webchat’ which followed on from a conversation between Penny Mordaunt MP, Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women & Equalities, and Justine Roberts CBE, co-founder of the hugely popular and influential website Mumsnet. Roberts is a media presence in her own right, a veteran of programmes like Questiontime and The Media Show, and a vocal supporter of freedom of speech for women around issues affecting women. Penny Mordaunt agreed to take part in a non-live webchat with already-registered Mumsnet users, which means that established Mumsnetters were invited to submit questions about Mordaunt’s remit - these all appeared on a dedicated public talk board - that were then sent through to Mordaunt, and answers were expected to be returned and published (and discussed by Mumsnetters) on Friday 8th March.
Friday arrived, International Women’s Day, but there were no webchat answers from Penny in the ether. For a few days there was a patient air of understanding from Mumsnet users that if Mordaunt was prepared to examine all of the questions instead of taking just a selection, then it was fair enough for her to need some additional time to write her answers. But the limited, technical extension turned into a longer and longer delay - and in the meantime there was no holding statement, nor apology, and by the following week the crowd was growing restless.
Given that the questions included things as basic as ‘What is a woman?’, some users felt that this at least could have been tackled as a preliminary response to the other questions from (mostly) women about, for example, ‘gender dysphoria’ in young children, the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). There were also questions themed around international development and the safety of girls; period poverty; menstruation and girls’ privacy; Brexit and its affects on women; drugs being used experimentally on children of both sexes in the UK; gender ideology and the safeguarding of children; the inappropriate medicalisation of children and the troubles at the Tavistock Clinic; violence against women and girls; the ‘porn’ industry and its affects on the safety of girls; women’s sports; women’s prisons; and her views on protecting the permitted single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act.
The questions were topical and were asked intelligibly, and clearly displayed genuine intent to engage with her about her important remit. For example, ‘Dear Penny, Do you think it is right and fair that a person who was born male and has gone through male puberty, can compete in girls’ and women’s sports?’ (Btw, I’m loving the Mumsnet penchant for politeness and correct SPAG there.)
And so Monday arrived, then Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday - and still no answers were forthcoming. Mumsnetters started to wonder if the questions were simply too difficult for Penny Mordaunt to answer, and/or whether she was engaged in disagreements with her SPADs. (SPADS: special advisers, some of whom have a penchant for lobbying their own Ministers with politically ‘woke’ ideas, which are frequently out of step with the thinking of ordinary voters.) After all, this was all running parallel to Maria Miller getting held to account on Twitter by women about her lack of consultation with women’s organisations, women’s groups and women’s services prior to producing her Select Committee report on the GRA - a report which included proposals that if enacted would fundamentally affect women’s and girls’ lives.
The restless crowd began to wonder if Mordaunt and her SPADs were now caught between a rock and a hard place, because politicians don’t want to admit they’ve been throwing women and children under the bus, and being complicit in yet another potential safeguarding scandal, and these politicians certainly don’t want to go under the bus themselves. Eventually even the most Hackeresque Ministries know that waffle and contradictory statements won’t hack it any more once strong lights start to shine on them from places like Mumsnet.
Rowan from Mumsnet’s headquarters - a very popular and switched-on member of ‘MNHQ’ - posted an update about the unanswered questions at midday Thursday 14th March to the effect that something would be happening soon. Speculation among users mounted that the length of the delay might hopefully be commensurate with the quality and depth of the answers that were about to appear, but this reverted to concerns that the delay might be due to answers being run past ‘zillions of people’ and becoming chopped up and diluted down with each pass along the line - in other words, far from receiving the opinions of Penny Mordaunt, the posters of Mumsnet were in for a buffet of SPAD salad with lashings of meaningless-word toppings.
By 2pm, Penny Mordaunt’s electronic answer-sheet was still a no-show, and one poster pointed out the foolishness of an elected politician treating the users of such a huge British website - one which claims to have 14 millions unique users a month - so cavalierly. And it’s an interesting thought about elections. Mordaunt’s seat, Portsmouth North, isn’t a safe Conservative seat by any means; indeed I remember being at the election count in Portsmouth Guildhall where Sarah McCarthy-Fry won it for Labour and Mordaunt came 2nd. The seat then swung to Mordaunt in 2010, and the constituency for many decades prior had swung between Labour and the Tories, with personal popularity always having been a significant factor. One thing we know is that people in Portsmouth North don’t take kindly to politicians and ‘authorities’ who are perceived to be complacent about children’s safeguarding.
Indeed, the word in political circles now is that ‘gender self-ID’ ideology has belatedly been recognised as a big, fat political hot potato, one that no-one in Tory High Command realised until recently was being super-heated by a group of SPADs and not-so-senior civil servants. This is one hot potato that no-one in government now wants to catch - especially not on top of juggling the hell coals of Brexit. So it’s been left in the hands of Miller and Mordaunt to chuck around, possibly to each other, possibly for the whole of this Parliament.
By 3pm, there were still no answers forthcoming from Penny Mordaunt’s office. Jokes now abounded on Mumsnet about ‘Meaningful Webchat III’ and the availability of gin vouchers, amidst more serious points about whether women actually matter to the Minister for Women. 4pm arrived, and still there was nothing.
Finally, at a few minutes before 6pm, as Mordaunt herself was filing though the division lobbies of the House of Commons voting on Brexit amendments, ‘her’ answers were posted on the webchat board. It took Mumsnetters (a diligent and intelligent lot, whom politicians underestimate at their peril) a short while to trawl through them - and then with ice-cold restraint they kind of handed Penny Mordaunt her arse on a plate. They had hoped for the words of someone who was at least on top of her brief and who recognised the need to protect the sex-based rights of women and girls, but instead they got (and I say this with a reviewer’s hat on) a disjointed medley of politico-speak and ineffective deflection. She had had ample time to come up with answers of real substance, but interestingly she didn’t even seem to try. In fact her answers can be grouped into a number of overlapping categories: (1) Deliberately misunderstood the question; (2) Didn’t understand the question or the issue, and contradicted herself; (3) Resented being asked the question; and (4) Couldn’t be bothered to answer the question properly. As one poster put it, ‘80% of these answers weren’t actually answers were they?’ Another called the performance ‘clueless’. Ouch.
For example, she wittingly or unwittingly managed to ‘other’ women who have had hysterectomies or who have fertility issues by using them to make a point that didn’t even answer the question that had been asked of her. Another poster who was making a valid point about not wanting her child being taught a particular ideology of gender in school (as opposed to actual, proper science-based sex education) was advised to go see her MP. The issue of rapist men self-identifying as women and accessing women’s prisons was batted off to the Ministry of Justice, after she’d made clear that the women’s prison estate wasn’t at the top of the list of her priorities: ‘So the rights and feelings of actual women come second. Noted’ wrote one contributor, coolly.
The Mumsnetters who had asked their questions in such detail, and with such courtesy - posters have to abide by Mumsnet’s fairly stringent ‘Talk Guidlines’ - were left disappointed and, frankly, pissed off, especially regarding the unanswered points about children’s safeguarding. But they weren’t leaving the webchat meekly. ‘Disappointed but not surprised’ wrote one poster. ‘Completely disingenuous’ wrote another. Of her apparent ignorance around the issues raised concerning children’s safeguarding, a poster wrote, more in sadness than anger, ‘This is unforgiveable. You were given all the information. All of it. Spoonfed it. You haven’t bloody well read it.’ And one of the most damning comments so far: ‘Either Penny, or Penny’s SPADs are not up to par on the reports coming out of the Tavistock’. (Click here if you want to read the Mail’s report about the potentially brewing scandal, or here for a BBC snippet. It’s worth digging deeper if you’re interested.)
And finally, can the Minister for Women even define what is a woman? On this showing, the answer would seem to be No. The actual Minister for Woman apparently doesn’t ‘get it’, doesn’t want to ‘get it’, and seemingly can’t be bothered to ‘get it’. That’s a lot of women’s votes that have just been lost, whichever way you look at it. Post-modern, philosophical ideologies of feelings, and misunderstandings of the difference between sex and gender, should never, ever compromise the safeguarding of children. People who raise red flags about safeguarding deserve to be taken seriously and to have their voices heard. If we’ve learned nothing else during the past decade, surely to God we’ve learned that.
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Edit (typos) 15th March 2019 am. May I also acknowledge and link to the Mumsnet webchat under discussion, and additionally thank all the contributing posters and of course Justine ‘MN’ Roberts. Further edit (typos) 15th March 2019 pm, 16th March 2019 pm.
One of those Mumsnet posters Maya Forstater produced this piece for The Independent a few days later: ‘Has Penny Mordaunt got away with the worst Mumsnet performance ever?’, in which she analyses the questions and Mordaunt’s responses in some detail, and it is worth a read.