John Major appeared in Parliament for the first time since becoming prime minister, showing unsteady nerves as he fended off charges Thursday that the only woman in his Cabinet is "the backseat driver," former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Major, 47, was congratulated on his appointment, and warm greetings were offered to Thatcher as she took her seat on the back benches for the first time in 29 years.The youngest prime minister this century named his Cabinet Wednesday - not one woman was among the 22 appointees for the first time in 14 years.
Sharply criticized from within and without his Conservative Party, Major named Gillian Shephard as a Treasury minister Thursday evening.
"I think it is a terrific vote of confidence, personally, but also for women," she said. As a minister, Shephard is not a member of the Cabinet.
Hours earlier, during prime minister's question time in the House of Commons, Labor MP Robert Hughes wanted to know, "Can the honorable gentleman tell us why there is no woman in his Cabinet or is the only woman in his Cabinet the backseat driver," a reference to Thatcher, who lost her job as prime minister but remains MP for the Finchley neighborhood of North London.
"Women will reach the top on merit," said Major, who has promised to create "a society of opportunity" in Britain. "If the honorable gentleman is patient he will find women aplenty in my government in top positions."
Conservative MP Teresa Gorman had threatened to stage a protest.
"We are going to start walking down and plunking ourselves down on the front bench (where Cabinet members sit). If they won't give us an official job, we will just have to go there and squat."
It is the first time Britain has been without a woman in the top echelon of government since a brief spell in 1976.