Brexit Is for Boys

Since 2016, the campaign to leave the European Union has been led primarily by men. The remaining candidates for prime minister are all male—and they're not talking about the grave consequences of Brexit for women.

Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, and Rory Stewart participate in a televised Conservative Party leadership debate on June 18 in London.
Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, and Rory Stewart participate in a televised Conservative Party leadership debate on June 18 in London. Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images

When Theresa May announced her resignation outside No. 10 Downing St. last month, she noted that she was Britain’s second-ever female prime minister and promised she was “certainly not the last.” She’ll be the last for now, though, since all the candidates left in the race to replace her are men. By the end of July, her successor will need to win over dual constituencies: The first, 313 Conservative lawmakers (four-fifths of them men), will narrow the field to two contenders, and then the second, about 160,000 Tory party members (more than two-thirds of them men), will mail in ballots to decide the final result.

This selection process is the latest example of a persistent phenomenon: The Brexit debate is male-dominated. From the decades-old schoolboy rivalry between David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who backed different sides of the referendum, to the informal fraternity among Brexiteers, who christened themselves “Bad Boys of Brexit,” the core argument has been between elite white men, with the exception of one nonwhite man, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who is still in the running to replace May.

It has been this way from the beginning. In 2016, one study found that print press coverage of the referendum campaign featured 85 percent male voices; on TV, it was 75 percent. Women were excluded from the debate and so were the issues that most affected them. For her part, May was neither the architect nor, in the end, the deliverer of Brexit. And she did little to address the gender equality repercussions of leaving the EU. The result has been that, after a three-year political back-and-forth over Brexit, a vital question remains unanswered: What are the stakes for women?

Although not all women supported staying in the EU—voting patterns reveal sharper trends in age and region than in gender—they will feel the consequences of leaving it. May’s government has said gender equality provisions derived from the EU—such as equal pay, maternity leave, and part-time workers’ rights—will be transferred into British law. But that commitment is not binding.

Without European courts and standards, it is not hard to imagine the next government of Brexiteers, in their zeal to cut red tape, trimming protections for women through deregulation. Already a minister in the department in charge of Brexit, Martin Callanan, has suggested that the U.K. “scrap” such protections, including the pregnant workers’ directive, because they are “barriers to actually employing people.”

There are also logistical problems. One collateral loss of Brexit could be the European Protection Order, which ensures that restraining orders apply across EU member states—allowing, for instance, a British woman who moves to Germany to be protected from an abusive partner there. Another is EU funding to British women’s civil society groups, including those that work to combat domestic violence. What is more, a projected 28,000 caregivers who hail from EU member states will no longer be able to work in the U.K., which means some British women will likely have to leave their jobs to look after aging relatives, according to the Department of Health. Most of all, the EU withdrawal process is a time-and resource-sucking distraction, which has stalled policymaking on issues concerning women as it has in nearly every other legislative area.

Indeed, none of this is to mention the gender inequality that exists apart from Brexit. Since 2010, when the Conservatives took power, women have borne 86 percent of the burden from austerity cuts. And since 1861, Northern Ireland has had a total ban on abortion, making it the only place in the U.K. today where abortion is banned—even after a landmark referendum last year legalizing it in the neighboring Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was only recently able to gain significant influence nationally by becoming a crucial supporting party for May’s government, in 2017. That Tory dependence on the DUP’s votes to stay in power is likely why Westminster has still not challenged Northern Ireland to amend its antiquated law, which threatens life imprisonment for women who terminate pregnancies.

These difficulties are a fraction of the thorny inheritance awaiting the next prime minister. The early favorite in the race is Johnson, whom U.S. President Donald Trump backed as an “excellent” choice for the top job. Trump also praised both Johnson and Nigel Farage, the former leader of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party, as “very good guys.” This trans-Atlantic affinity is unsurprising. From xenophobia to bombast, and falsehoods to Russian links, much about the Brexiteers is Trumpian.

So is the way they talk about women. What Trump defended as “locker room talk,” Farage called “alpha male boasting … the kind of thing, if we are being honest, that men do.” Johnson, meanwhile, has compared Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and burqa-wearing women to letter boxes.

From xenophobia to bombast, and falsehoods to Russian links, much about the Brexiteers is Trumpian. So is the way they talk about women.

Another Leaver and contender for prime minister, Michael Gove, once joked that politicians bracing themselves for tough interviews “is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom—you hope to emerge with your dignity intact.” Dominic Raab, who was also standing for the leadership until he was eliminated on Tuesday, has called feminists “obnoxious bigots.” Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary—who has so far performed second best in gaining votes, after Johnson—is less prone to bombast than his competitors but nonetheless has said that he believes time limits during which women can have abortions ought to be halved (though he has indicated he would not seek to change the law to accord with those personal views). So striking is the chauvinism in this race that one of the candidates has called it out. In a televised debate, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, a moderate choice relative to the others until he was knocked out of the running on Wednesday, accused his rivals of engaging in a “competition of machismo.”

Whether the Bad Boys of Brexit or Trump, male leaders can drum up trouble with little risk of being physically harmed by the fallout. The stakes for female politicians are higher. In the U.K., 9 in 10 female parliamentarians reported receiving online abuse, and nearly half said they had gotten threats of violence, according to the BBC.

The sole casualty of the Brexit campaign was a woman. One week before the EU referendum vote, in 2016, a 52-year-old man murdered Jo Cox, a 41-year-old who represented his constituency in Parliament. As he shot and stabbed her, he shouted, “Britain first,” the name of a far-right fascist organization. The killer’s ties to white nationalist groups and Cox’s support for remaining in the EU turned the assassination from a one-off tragedy into a symbol, a violent manifestation of political vitriol surrounding the Brexit question. In observance of Cox’s death, both sides publicly agreed to a suspension of campaigning. But the pro-Brexit camp, we now know, carried on running advertisements; “press it harder,” instructed Arron Banks, one of its lead funders, in a since-unearthed email. The next week, when the Brexiteers triumphed, Farage proclaimed they had done so “without a single bullet being fired.”

Since then, the Brexit debate has been characterized by this combination of nastiness, lies, and machismo. As the withdrawal process comes to a head, all of the candidates for prime minister support leaving the EU, most of them—including front-runners Johnson and Hunt—would consider doing so without a deal, and none of them has detailed how he will protect women in the process. For now, then, a Brexit of men and by men is likely to become a Brexit for men, too.

Sarah Donilon is a writer based in Washington and London. Twitter: @SarahDonilon

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