`Men never said to your face they didn't want you'

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THE DOUBTS were rarely raised in public. It was only afterwards that they trickled back to the prospective Tory woman candidate, one recalled yesterday.

"Nothing was ever specifically stated," Tessa Keswick said. "It's not easy to identify where the hostility comes in. You used to hear more afterwards about the opinions they never actually said - that they didn't want a woman."

Mrs Keswick, now director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a centre- right policy think-tank, first tried to get elected in 1987 and was eventually allowed to fight a completely unwinnable seat. In 1992 she tried again but was not even selected. After that she gave up.

She remembers aggressive questioning in interviews, although she concedes that men probably endured equally aggressive grillings - though possibly on different subjects.

"`Why aren't you wearing a wedding ring?' they asked me once. I was married, but just didn't have the ring on."

There was no doubt men had the upper hand. "If they had to choose, they would rather have a man. They'd appoint a male chairman in a ward because he was a banker without even knowing him. I guess it was rather the same [with MPs]. If the CV is good enough, and the smile, they like the man. But it was not stated."

With a background in advertising and business, a smattering of journalism and service as a local councillor, Tessa Keswick had a reasonable CV of her own. "But I think you had to be extremely good, you just had to be that much better to be selected. Judith Chaplin - who was a trained economist - was, but she had about eight cabinet ministers ringing up for her."

Mrs Keswick said she had received no help at all from Tory Central Office, although she had the impression that that position had since improved. "It was men who were the pets, who were pushed by the [constituency] chairmen."

Female solidarity was largely non-existent out there in the Tory shires and boroughs. "The women were deeply suspicious of other women. They love the young men."

Mrs Keswick said there was no point in appointing women who were not up to the job, and she feared that many potentially good candidates currently saw standing for the Conservatives as a bad career move.

But it was vital for the future of the Conservative Party that the party understood the difference that more women would make. "Without them, the Conservative Party is going to shrivel."

The positions she met have convinced Mrs Keswick that words are not enough. "I think it will take 30 years to get more women at this rate," she said. "Women MPs are just so important. They have got to feel that, instead of looking at them with pursed lips as if they had sucked on a lemon."