Thursday, 13 May 2010

Give them time, there are Tory women in the wings

A Times leading article today ("Cabinetwork") expresses its disappointment that even in this brave era of 'New Politics' the British Government can only summon up four female Cabinet ministers. True, the ratio is no better than under Gordon Brown, whose fairer sex colleagues were memorably expressed as "window dressing" by Caroline Flint.

Yet where the former Labour Government and this current coalition diverge is in time in office and turnover of MPs. After thirteen years of being in power, and having welcomed so many of the 'Blair Babes' to Parliament in 1997, we ought to have expected enough to have reached ministerial maturity by the time Gordon Brown assumed office. That they did not - or that they did and fell short - should be viewed with far more opprobrium than the extant maidenly drought.

We should recall that the Conservatives are the only party to have produced a female Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Baroness Thatcher is the exception to the rule. We have not, as a party, done enough to encourage women (and other people, such as ethnic minorities) to become Conservative candidates and MPs. That is why, when David Cameron became the party leader in 2005, he took decisive steps to increase the number of women, black and minority ethnic Conservative MPs. Led by Theresa May, our new Home Secretary, and Bernard Jenkin, the Deputy Chairman for Candidates, we searched far and wide for new women, black and minority ethnic candidates, supported by a mentoring programme and guidance for local associations.

The appearance of the A-List and all-women shortlists has been controversial to some (or should I say many?) but it has achieved certain results. As I wandered around Portcullis House and the Commons itself on Monday evening, casting my gaze over many of the new intake it was evident that the composition of the Conservative Party has been markedly altered - and not only because 49% of our MPs are newly elected. We now have a lot more women on the Tory benches.

The parliamentary party has increased the number of women from 18 to 48, or 16% of the total. Compared with Labour's 30%, there is clearly still some way to go, yet we do remain ahead of our new colleagues the Liberal Democrats, whose proportion is down at 13%.

Significantly, 17 out of the 38 victorious A-list candidates are women - or 45%. Within and without this group there are a number of women tipped to rise rapidly through the ranks.

Author Louise Bagshawe is the new MP for Corby. "Chick-lit" novelist she might be but she should not be underestimated. With numerous media appearances already under her belt, for instance on Question Time, she has proved herself an accomplished act and is near the top of the list for promotion. A successful campaign that I had some involvement in was Tracey Crouch's in Chatham & Aylesford. Ms Crouch has extensive experience within the party and in financial services. Jane Ellison had an easier task than most in overturning a notional Labour majority of 336 in Battersea and her selection here is an indication of how highly she is thought of. Other prominent women include Rebecca Harris, our new MP for Castle Point, former TV presenter Esther McVey, MP for Wirral West, and (controversially?) hard-right traditionalist Priti Patel, MP for Witham. I first met Charlotte Leslie, MP for Bristol North West, a few years ago and from the off have found her hugely impressive - bright, energetic and infectiously cheerful; she has worked for the BBC, edited Crossbow (the Bow Group's magazine) and authored a paper for Policy Exchange, as well as writing for publications like Prospect, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Spectator. I believe that she will be an important thinker on policy for years to come.

Great things are also expected of Margot James, MP for Stourbridge, who was David Cameron's pick as Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party for women's issues. One of the party's foremost modernisers, Ms James is a highly successful entrepreneur and the party's first 'out' lesbian MP. How significant you view this last point depends on how damaging you thought Chris Grayling's B&B comments were. Regardless, a junior ministerial post awaits.

I have mentioned only a few examples here but I hope it serves to show that the Times' pessimism is misdirected. The real crime is that after 13 years of Labour Governments and a PLP approaching one-third women, that we still had overwhelmingly male-dominated Cabinet tables. There are many female Conservative MPs waiting in the wings for promotion to ministerial office. Give them time.

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