Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon during a 2015 general election TV debate 

POLITICS

When in doubt, bring out the women

Thursday will see Boris Johnson and three women MPs debate Brexit. Whatever the reason women are now getting a chunk of the limelight, it's about time we heard more women's voices in political debate, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.

Or that’s the idea of this week’s Great Brexit Telly Debate against Boris Johnson, anyway. The podium on the Remain side had been looking dangerously empty, what with David Cameron and George Osborne and various other senior men proving strangely unwilling to confront their old friend directly. But now the Remain camp has unveiled what’s been rather breathlessly described as its "secret weapon": women. 

An all-female team of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Labour’s Angela Eagle and the Tory cabinet minister Amber Rudd will face Leave’s most bankable star live on ITV because apparently women are better placed to expose his "bluster and buffoonery for what it is" – while the men bravely, um, sit this one out.

All three will know that if they win on Thursday night, they’ll have done their bit not just for staying in Europe but for ensuring future female politicians aren’t just used as window dressing but respected for what they can do

Or to put it another way, it’s basically like buses: you wait for ever for some female politician to be allowed star billing in the referendum campaign, and then three come along at once (funnily enough, just in time for a high-risk gig the men don’t seem all that keen to do).

But, hey, let’s not be cynical. Firstly, it does actually make sense not to reduce the whole question of our future in Europe to a slanging match between two men who were at school together – which is what it could become if Cameron took Boris on – or a preview of the next Tory leadership contest.  

And, secondly, all three women are sensible choices for socking it to the Leavers this Thursday night. It was Sturgeon, along with Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, who took on Nigel Farage most effectively over immigration during last year’s general election debates. Eagle did so well filling in for Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions recently that some wondered if Labour hadn’t missed a trick.

Rudd, meanwhile, is a relatively new and inexperienced cabinet minister but is tough, economically savvy and takes no nonsense – and like the other two, she’s a woman’s woman who won’t let her own ego get in the way of good teamwork. All three will know that if they win on Thursday night, they’ll have done their bit not just for staying in Europe but for normalising the role of women at the top of public life – for ensuring future female politicians aren’t just used as window dressing but respected for what they can do. 

And if they fail – well, at least they’ll have had the courage to get stuck in, which is more than every Remainer can say.

We’ve seen, too, that having more women in the big debates can shake them up in interesting ways. Remember Sturgeon, Wood and the Greens’ Natalie Bennett sharing a group hug at the end of the last general election debate, while Ed Miliband stood sadly by? For a minute, it looked as if the old political order was crumbling, and a rather refreshing new one taking shape. You can see why Remain strategists, often accused of looking too “establishment” and cliquey, would want to recreate that vibe – especially when Boris himself will be backed up by two formidable female Leavers, the Tory minister Andrea Leadsom and Labour’s Gisela Stuart.

True, the sight of Boris being outnumbered by uppity women may only encourage a certain kind of man into the Leave camp. But that’s probably a risk Remain is happy to take now, given their biggest worry is whipping up interest in a debate that’s so far left many cold. (Talking of which, tonight is the final deadline for registering to vote in the referendum if you haven’t done so yet. Unless you fancy leaving your life in the hands of the sort of people who’ve been waiting their whole lives for this referendum, obviously).

And if nothing else, at least a line-up of five women and one token man won’t look like anything we’re used to seeing in politics.  May the best woman win, whichever side she’s on.  

@gabyhinsliff 

Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon during a 2015 general election TV debate 
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women on TV
Politics

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