'Honour of my life': Rachel Reeves becomes UK's first female chancellor in 800 years

'It comes with a historic responsibility as the first woman to be appointed chancellor,' Reeves said. Credit: PA

By Elisa Menendez, Westminster Producer

After centuries of British male chancellors, Rachel Reeves has become the first woman to take on the top job in government following Labour's landslide election victory.

Widely regarded as the second most important job after the prime minister, the role of the chancellor of the exchequer has lacked a female touch since its creation more than 800 years ago - until now.

Reeves said it was the "honour of my life" to be appointed chancellor by new Prime Minister Keir Starmer, who has become the seventh-ever Labour PM.

Speaking after Labour secured a majority with a triumphant 412 seats, thrashing the Tories who suffered their worst-ever result winning 121, Reeves said: "It comes with a historic responsibility as the first woman to be appointed chancellor.

"To every young girl and woman reading this, let today show that there should be no limits on your ambitions."

Rachel Reeves gave her first speech as chancellor on Friday afternoon

Labour's return to power after a 14-year hiatus means that Reeves has been given the coveted keys to Number 11 Downing Street - the official residence of the government's chief financial minister.

Chancellor Rachel Reeves said “there is no time to waste” as she addressed Treasury staff for the first time.

She said: “I have been a Member of Parliament for 14 years now. And if I’m honest, I’ve spent a lot of those years frustrated. Talking, not doing. Responding to constituents’ problems, but not being able to get to the root cause of those problems."

“I will judge my time in office a success if I know that, at the end of it, there are working-class kids from ordinary backgrounds living richer lives, their horizons expanded, and their potential realised," she added.

The most telling sign inside Number 11 of how male-dominated this role has been is that there is only a urinal in the toilets of the chancellor's private office. Sources close to Reeves told ITV News that work will begin soon to remove it.

This new government arguably has more representation of powerful women than the UK has seen before, with three of the most vital jobs under Sir Keir being held by Reeves, Yvette Cooper as home secretary and Angela Rayner as deputy prime minister.

Although the UK has seen three female prime ministers and other vital Cabinet roles held by women, the crucial job of controlling the nation's finances has never been appointed to a woman - and so it seems fitting that a former Bank of England economist should be the trailblazer.

Sources close to Reeves say her position as a female chancellor is of utmost importance to her, partly because she believes the people who are in the room when top decisions are made - and the life experience they bring - makes a difference to public policy.

The fact she is coming to this job not only as a woman, but also a mother, is very important to her, say sources.

This is reflected in three key policies that Reeves is passionate about: childcare, the gender pay gap, and free breakfast clubs at schools.

The chancellor has made it a priority to deliver a "modern childcare system" that fits in with working people - in part to give mothers, in particular, more opportunities to return to and stay in work.

Reeves has won the keys to Number 11. Credit: PA

Despite it being out of step with her fiscally prudent, self-proclaimed "iron discipline" approach, Reeves committed to the Tories' £4 billion expansion in funded childcare eligibility. Under a Labour government, that involves plans for around 3,300 new nurseries in spare primary school classrooms - paid for by ending tax breaks private schools currently enjoy.

Second, Labour has committed to introducing free breakfast clubs in all primary schools, which is part of their strategy to end child poverty, but also gives parents flexibility to start the working day earlier.

Finally, Reeves has repeatedly spoken of her mission to eliminate the gender pay gap "once and for all". More than 50 years on since Labour's Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1970 - which made it illegal to pay men and women different salaries for the same jobs - the gap currently stands at 14.3% in the UK, according to the TUC.

This widens if a woman becomes a mother, says the union, and at current rates it will take another 20 years to close.

Reeves has described it as "the last glass ceiling" in politics, telling The Guardian last month that as chancellor, this would be "the biggest impact that I can make to the lives of ordinary women, women who go out to work".

“This is not about naming and shaming," she told the newspaper. "It’s just saying we recognise there are some sectors, some firms, where historically there have been a lot more men than women, but everybody can do something to close that gender pay gap.”

However, she - along with Rayner - have drawn criticism for refusing to scrap the two-child benefit cap. It was introduced by the government in 2017 and restricts Child Tax Credit and Universal Credit to the first two children in most households.

Rachel Reeves and Angela Rayner were pressed on the decision not to scrap the two-child benefit cap by Anushka Asthana

A report by the End Child Poverty Coalition recently found a strong correlation between child poverty levels and the number of families impacted by the two-child limit.

Pressed on this by ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana, Reeves said: "There are so many promises that are made at elections and broken... I don't want to give people false hope that there's stuff that we're going to be able to do when we can't say where the money is going to come from."

Still, Labour has said its key economic mission is to get the economy growing again and Reeves has been clear that women and equality will be "at the heart" of their plans for growth. In an article she wrote for The Independent in March, she said: "As a woman working in politics and in economics, you get used to working in a world that doesn’t look like modern Britain. Still, in 2024, no woman has served as governor of the Bank of England, or first permanent secretary to the Treasury, or chancellor of the Exchequer."

The chancellor went on to say that women are "worse off" after 14 years of Tory rule, saying successive governments have falsely believed "we can build a strong economy based on the success of a few people, a few places, and a few industries".

"Women bore the brunt of austerity after 2010," she wrote. "Women were worst affected by the economic and social impact of the pandemic. And, too, often it is women who bear the burden of insecure work, low pay and overstretched public services."

Despite her criticism of the Tories, Reeves - who has written books about women in politics and economics - raised some eyebrows when she said she admired Margaret Thatcher at the Labour Party conference last year. She told ITV News in June: "When I grew up I joined the Labour Party because I disagreed with everything that Margaret Thatcher did to our country - but as women in politics, her becoming prime minister showed that women can reach the top of politics.

"Whether you react against her like me and Ang [Rayner] did, or you support what she did, she had a big influence on our politics. And also as a woman she did smash a glass ceiling. I don't think anyone can deny that."

ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana, who has spent much time with and interviewed Rachel Reeves in-depth, gives her take on how the chancellor will make her mark:

"Having a female chancellor of the exchequer will make a difference in a lot of ways.

"Rachel Reeves has come forward as a really authoritative figure, which is sometimes particularly hard for women in politics - and particularly so for women on the left because they can be more disruptive than women on the right. Sometimes, in my opinion, they face more sexism as a result.

"When Keir Starmer was building his shadow Cabinet in May 2021, one of the two key people he wanted to get in was her - despite not really knowing her at that point.

"Labour was nowhere on economic credibility a few years ago, so from day one, there was a focus on 'how do we make Rachel credible?' They chose to focus on her love of chess (she was a junior chess championship) and her institutional background at the Bank of England.

"The way the Labour team have made Reeves really authoritative is by placing her in front of settings that highlighted her background - for example, on the roof of a building in The City and in boardrooms.

Rachel Reeves has been placed in settings that highlight her background in economics. Credit: PA

"And as women together at the top, Reeves and Angela Rayner have a different feeling. They have very different politics but when they interact together, their policies fall away and they get on really well. I know Reeves was a big support to Rayner during the housing investigation.

"One thing I'd say about Reeves - having known her since she first became an MP in 2010 - is that she absolutely sees things through the lens of being a woman. She definitely emphasises certain areas which perhaps a man wouldn't as much.

"For example, there is going to be a big focus on childcare. Although, to be fair to the Conservatives, they had taken us quite a long way on that childcare journey - but I know that's something that Reeves really cares about. Her experience definitely influences how she behaves and what she cares about, which is why the breakfast policy, childcare and the gender pay gap are so important to her. It was not a small decision to sign up to a £4 billion childcare package - but it deals with problem of inactivity and mothers in work.

"Reeves can compete with any man but she'll bring a different flavour. I think she will have as much authority as any male chancellor - or more."

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