David Cameron’s Comeback Tells Us Men Help Other Men To Fail Up

As Rishi Sunak appoints David Cameron as his Foreign Secretary, Sophie Walker unpicks the way men look out for men while women are told lies about why they aren't making it to the top.

by Sophie Walker |
Updated on

Remember David Cameron? Former UK Prime Minister, architect of Brexit; Remainer politician who delivered a referendum result to Leave the European Union? Who oversaw Britain’s international status reduced to laughing stock, irrelevance; watched the UK descend into near-civil war; and stoked the rise of populist politics for the angry and disenfranchised? And then left, resigning with a short statement, and a little song under his breath as he walked away from a cratered Downing Street with the off-camera comment: ‘Right. Excellent’?

Of course you remember him. Well, less than ten years after Brexit, and just seven years after signing an £800,000 publishing deal for his memoirs, Cameron is back as the UK’s new Foreign Secretary. This is profoundly shocking in the way that trolling is shocking – it causes a major intake of breath, a sense of furious dismay, and then, all too quickly, the realisation – but of course, and here we go. Because in the magic land of Patriarchy, men fail up. Only women really fail.

Don’t believe me? Look at the person who promoted Cameron. Rishi Sunak, who failed so badly as Chancellor, that he got to be Prime Minister and preside for a bit longer over the fallout of his failures: a cost of living crisis causing premature deaths and further widening the inequality between rich and poor, NHS workforce, systems and financial crises pushing it to near-collapse, schools in literal collapse as buildings fall - not to mention a much-needed 11 billion pounds squandered in debt interest payments.

Still don’t believe me? Scroll to your next news story – look; there’s Nigel Farage, probably the UK’s best known politician thanks to the hours and hours of airtime he was given by media moguls (male) - despite his failure to get elected to Parliament across seven attempts - now being paid £1.5 million to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

Hooray again for the magic land of Patriarchy, where rich, white men can prove time and time again that they are terrible at their jobs and still be considered the only category suitable from which to select candidates for, er, the same jobs.

But, but, but – comes the response – what about Liz Truss and Suella Braverman? Weren’t they terrible top-flight leaders too? Hmm yes but – come back to me when they’ve had as many bounce backs as Boris Johnson, the man who was fired in 1987 for making up a quote at The Times, then hired by The Telegraph; fired from the Conservative front bench in 2004 over affair claims, then made it back to the front bench a year later; ran and withdrew from the Party Leadership election in 2016, became Foreign Secretary, resigned, and then made it to Prime Minister.

Come back to me too when you’ve read about the ‘glass cliff’ syndrome, in which female leaders are appointed only when all the men have made a terrible hash of it, and are thus more likely to take on an impossibly hard to fix situation and also then get elbowed out of the way once they’ve calmed things down a bit. (I give you: Theresa May and multitudes of female CEOs)

Then there’s the still-bigger picture (- so boring when you just want to squeak that the Tories have had more female leaders, so therefore this can’t possibly be anything to do with Patriarchy or misogyny and that incompetence knows no sex bias.) Fewer than a third of UN member states have ever had a woman leader. In the UK, women are outnumbered by men in local and central government by two to one and typically take multiple attempts to get elected owing to voters who are conditioned to see success as a man ; Incompetence is overlooked, accommodated and baked into men - and ascribed to women before they’ve even asked for your vote.

Furthermore, should women manage to ignore this expectation of failure, whether they are working towards the top of their profession in politics, business, finance, academia or anywhere else, they will have to climb grimly past a chorus of (male) voices telling them that every time they miss a rung it’s down to their own lack of confidence or capacity to ask better for that promotion or pay rise or policy re-think. Because when women ask for these things, they’re much less likely to happen than when men ask for them. And the problem couldn’t possibly be with men so – let’s tell the women that it’s their confidence that’s the problem. Thus is invented ‘Imposter Syndrome’ which supposedly refers to a feeling that women have that they’re not good enough in the workplace but actually means that women are discriminated against at work to the extent that they feel they shouldn’t be there.

This isn't an argument for more incompetent women, but to insist we acknowledge a system that protects men and their incompetency by making it as hard as possible to allow alternate voices and perspectives in. This is particularly important now, as we're facing massive challenges in 21st century living that need more creativity and experience than a puddle of old Etonians can offer.

There will be a blizzard of pieces telling us what Cameron’s return means, many of which will doubtless consider it a pre-General Election strategy from Sunak. But really we should just follow the problem-solving principle known as Occam’s razor here – where the simplest explanation is the most likely. What Cameron’s return tells us is that men are still looking after men, regardless of how bad they are at their jobs, and still telling women barefaced lies about the protection racket we call Patriarchy and they call: another day at the office.

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