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How does the Tory party solve its ‘women problem’?

9 February 2014

6:35 PM

9 February 2014

6:35 PM

It’s a week since Harriet Harman claimed it was ‘raining men’ in the Tory party, and yet the debate still rages about whether the Conservatives have a ‘women problem’. Tory backbencher Tracey Crouch has written a forceful piece for the Mail on Sunday on why she felt Ed Miliband’s intervention at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday was patronising. It’s worth a read, not least because she tries to dispel the myth that women are being turned off Parliament just because it’s rowdy:

‘Some of the loudest and, in some cases, most effective hecklers in Parliament today are women MPs. Even the most unruly Labour men think twice before taking on Conservatives such as Anna Soubry and Claire Perry because they know they will be cut down to size by an even sharper and wittier putdown.

‘And Labour’s Emily Thornberry and Angela Eagle can shout as loud as anyone on the Opposition benches. It seems pretty unreasonable to whinge about that. Equality works both ways. The idea that women can’t hold their own against men in the hurly-burly of political debate is anathema to me. It is nothing to do with chauvinism.’

That some of the best hecklers in the Conservative party are women hasn’t been lost on those trying to co-ordinate the Tory attack at Prime Minister’s Questions: Therese Coffey is one of the ‘beserkers’ recruited for the Prime Minister’s ‘Q-Team’ of backbenchers who bellow insults across the Chamber at Ed Miliband. And in Theresa May, co-founder of Women2Win, the Conservatives have a strong boast of a female Home Secretary who hasn’t just survived but succeeded in one of the toughest jobs in public life.

Yesterday’s mini-reshuffle following Mark Harper’s departure also saw two women promoted: Karen Bradley from the whips’ office to the Home Office, and Harriett Baldwin from the backbenches to become an assistant whip. This has encouraged those agitating for change in the party that the leadership is listening.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with female representation in the Conservative party. But the problem seems to be as much about supply as it is about retention of female MPs. On Friday I wrote in my Telegraph column that party sources accept that ‘we do not have enough women coming forward in the first place’. CCHQ won’t release the figures for the percentage of people applying to be Conservative candidates who are women, but sources I’ve spoken to since have told me that the figure is just under 30 per cent.

The party’s Women2Win programme gives female candidates a great deal of help, including between four and eight hours of training a week, and practice for hustings, public meetings and selection panels. But if women aren’t coming forward as readily as men to even apply to be candidates, then clearly more needs to be done. And stories about a ‘women problem’ won’t help attract more female candidates, either.

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