`Beastly but necessary' to a Tory career

PORTRAITS OF every Conservative prime minister since Disraeli adorn the walls of the Carlton Club - including one of Baroness Thatcher, its sole female member.

The Carlton, a haunt of Tory grandees since it was founded 166 years ago, is one of a handful of gentlemen's clubs that have refused to bow to the winds of change. Last month, for the second time this year, it voted against extending full membership to women. Although most of the chaps were in favour, the two-thirds majority required to change the rules was not secured.

The Carlton does have 74 associate female members, but they are excluded from most of the bars and dining rooms and have no voting rights. Lady Thatcher was made an honorary life member when she became Conservative leader in 1975.

The club, housed in an elegant three-storey Victorian mansion in St James's Street, central London, was founded in 1832 to organise opposition to the Great Reform Bill. It was there that the first Conservative candidates were selected.

Since then, the 1,600-member Carlton has been the backdrop to many portentous events in the party's history. It was the venue for the meeting in October 1922 where Tory MPs decided to withdraw their support from Lloyd George's coalition government. In 1990, it was bombed by the IRA.

Last year, when the five candidates hosted rival parties on the eve of the Conservative leadership election, William Hague chose the Carlton for his champagne and canapes reception.

His subsequent victory notwithstanding, the club is a source of irritation to Mr Hague, its crusty image at odds with his attempts to modernise the party.

Mr Hague, an honorary life member, has repeatedly urged it to embrace change. "I believe it is time for the Carlton Club to open its doors so that women members of our party can become full members," he said earlier this year. "It is not, after all, any old club. It has become part of the fabric of our party."

The Carlton has made some small concessions to progress. Not so long ago, women were barred from using the main staircase - in case elderly male members were unduly stimulated by a glimpse of female ankle, or, heaven forbid, knee.

If Tory women are ever admitted to the inner sanctum, they may find that they concur with the view expressed early this century by Arthur Balfour, the former Tory prime minister, to Lord Curzon.

"The Carlton is a beastly club infected by the worst of the species, viz: the bore political," he told him. "But you are quite right to belong to it. It must be suffered, like long hours and constituents, as a necessary though disagreeable accompaniment of a political career."

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