Tory women: The full story in black and blue

The Conservative males' response when Emma Nicholson left John Major for Paddy Ashdown was 'sexist'. So what can you call the women's response to her memoirs? Try 'brutalist.'. Julia Langdon reports

"To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can."

Jane Austen would seem to have a message here for those who wish to get on in today's Tory party. The unseemly spat that has broken out this week between Emma Nicholson, the former Conservative MP who flounced off to join the Liberal Democrats last Christmas, and her one-time colleague, Dame Angela Rumbold, is a measure of that. Nicholson has written a book, Secret Society, in which she accuses her former Tory colleagues of dishonesty, dirty tricks - even physical assault. Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman MP, she alleges, punched her in the stomach for voting against the Government.

Emma Nicholson's problem is that she never concealed anything, least of all her ambition. Dame Angela Rumbold, former minister, deputy Tory chairwoman, a senior and respected figure of the Conservative establishment, may not be a household name to anyone except the Rumbolds. But she has got on in modern politics in a manner that poor Emma - poor "menopausal" Emma, as Dame Angela would murmur - never managed.

The irony is, however, that of all the women who were elected to sit on the Conservative benches of the House of Commons at the last election it was probably Miss Nicholson, more than any of the others, who was most representative of what used to be regarded as the "traditional" Conservative woman MP. What she did not apparently realise until too late was that the Tory party had changed.

It had actually even happened long before she first arrived on the green leather benches in 1987. She may have had the primary qualifications that were previously required - such as a fistful of forebears who had sat in the Commons beforehand, a good education and a few family titles - but by that time, things like that didn't matter any more.

The story is told in Surrey that when Emma Nicholson submitted her name unsuccessfully for selection for the 1984 by-election in South-West Surrey, subsequently won by Virginia Bottomley, she mentioned on her application that her mother was a Lady in her own right. And thus, it is said, in effect disqualified herself. "In the modern Tory party you would do as well to forget and certainly not to stress such a thing," muttered an expert on such matters yesterday.

The odd thing is that as Miss Nicholson had previously done service for four years in Central Office as the Conservative vice-chairman in charge of women candidates (some things have changed but they still don't believe in chairwomen in today's Tory party) she hadn't already happened to notice this.

Today's Tory Woman is not this creature of Emma Nicholson's fond imagination, not an impossibly grand person with a political background and a history that involved connections with the former administration of India, but someone more like Edwina Currie or Teresa Gorman. And people like those two are prepared to mix it with each other, or anybody else, with very little excuse. Take, for example, the circumstances this year when Mrs Currie, now a hugely successful light novelist, published her latest raunchy yarn. It contained a disparaging reference to Mrs Gorman's known advocacy of hormone replacement therapy, which attracted much derisive sniggering in the public prints.

Did Mrs Gorman answer back? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back? "I do believe that in a truly free society, people should be free to go to hell in their own way," Mrs Gorman told an afternoon television series, with direct reference to Edwina's (enviable, if short-lived) ministerial career. "I hate the nagging nanny state: 'Don't smoke', 'Wear a woolly hat in bed', 'Mind what you eat'." Or, subtitled: Are you receiving me, Mrs Currie? So far Edwina has not yet further reciprocated, but one can only imagine their body language when they meet in the inner sanctums, the Lady Members' Rooms of the House of Commons.

And there is a further disadvantage for them here: Tory women MPs do not have the sisterhood to sustain them that is found in the Labour Party. Clare Short may not have much time for Harriet Harman, for example - or vice versa - but sisterhood would dictate that neither would be caught speaking unpleasantly of the other; indeed, Clare Short tied herself in verbal knots earlier this year in order not to comment about Harriet Harman's choice of school for her children in a way that might be interpreted as an attack upon her political "sister" and "comrade".

Just as Julian Critchley, leading light essayist and Conservative MP, has recorded the change in the nature of the Tory MP in general, so, too, the woman Tory MP has changed in a particular manner.

The first three women ever to sit in the House of Commons - two of them Tories, the other a Liberal, inherited their husband's seats. Those who followed in the Tory cause were more likely to be titled than otherwise - and if they didn't have their own title to begin with they were almost certainly recognised with a damehood as soon as decency allowed. But I was warned yesterday by my Tory etiquette expert, herself a prominent Conservative, not to imagine that there was a "type " of woman Tory MP.

"How could you typecast Dame Joan Vickers and that splendid woman from Liverpool?" she demanded, referring to the redoubtable Dame Irene Ward of blessed memory. Dame Joan, famed for her blue hair and pearls, and Dame Irene, a doughty and inelegant Liverpudlian built like the dockers she represented, both shared the distinction of representing what should have been traditional Labour seats - and keeping them solely because of their personal popularity. Dame Joan wore a net with bows in it over her blue hair and, in later years, sported an ebony cane. Her double string of pearls served as the equivalent to four buttons on the jacket of the well-heeled gentleman.

("A double string ? " queried my style consultant, who must remain anonymous. " That was only when she was emptying the dustbins.") The difference between these dames - sorry Dames - and today's Tory women was that they had a passionate commitment to their cause. They entered politics because they wanted to do something, because they believed in something, because they had a cause they wanted to advance. The suspicion these days is that today's Tory woman enters politics in order to advance herself.

The charge often levelled against them - from their own supporters, rather than their political opponents - is that compared to their predecessors they are colourless, boring and self-seeking. They attract attention because they are women and because there are so few women in the House of Commons. They secure early promotion for the same reason. They do not, however, command respect in their own right. ."Can you see Virginia Bottomley holding down a traditional Labour seat in the way that Joan Vickers did?" my anonymous friend asked. It turned out to be a rhetorical question. "Well," she snorted. "I can't."

Tory Woman has another problem ahead, too, as well as that of not having moved with the times. It is that there are not enough of them who are prepared to stand for parliament. The next House of Commons may well have as many as 100 women Labour MPs as a result of that party's policy of positive discrimination. Women-only shortlists for selection in marginal seats may have been declared illegal - but only after the candidates had been chosen. The Conservatives have woken up too late to the real problem they have ahead of them here.

It will not be helped by the kind of criticism made of them by Miss Nicholson. She may be bitter about what has happened to the Conservative Party. Many Tories are. The patrician public school ethos which contributed many MPs in past times - mostly men, but some of them women - has gone. It is a different Tory Party, but even so its members still retain their historic admiration for those who display loyalty in all circumstances.

Emma Nicholson has betrayed her former party in a manner which they regard as unforgivable by crossing the floor of the House. Now she has compounded her treachery by writing a book of whingeing complaint. Her stock of credibility is unlikely to be increased by having sold serialisation rights to the Daily Mirror. She is playing rough and can expect little in return.

But she should know that, too. When she was fighting as a Conservative candidate and was involved in a messy divorce, she needed help from the party. The Prime Minister, then Margaret Thatcher, went out of her way to support her and publicly to demonstrate as much. It was taken very ill therefore in the higher echelons of the Tory Party when the 1990 leadership election was under way and Miss Nicholson saw fit to appear live on Newsnight to describe her antipathy to Thatcher and her desire for a new leader. Whatever her personal views she could have kept quiet about them, voted accordingly, but refused that television interview. The Conservative Party may have changed. But not so much that its members no longer see the value of loyalty.

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