David Cameron will tell women activists today that the Conservative Party does not need to copy Labour by introducing all-women shortlists, because the campaign to get more Tory women into the Commons is working without it.
The Tory leader will be guest speaker at a reception to mark the first anniversary of Women2Win, set up by senior Tories who were intent on ending the party's reputation for choosing men to run as Tory candidates and expecting their wives to act as unpaid assistants.
Their campaign has been boosted in the past week by the selection of women candidates for several of the choicest seats. They include Priti Patel, a former party press officer chosen to fight Witham, Essex, and Joanne Cash, a barrister selected in Westminster North. Last weekend, Tories in the newly created seat of Thirsk and Malton unexpectedly chose Anne McIntosh over John Greenway, who has been an MP in that part of Yorkshire for 19 years.
According to Conservative campaign headquarters, 28 out of 78 candidates selected so far - about 36 per cent - are women. All are in target seats. Currently, the Tories have 17 women MPs out of 198, less than 9 per cent.
David Cameron promised to take up the cause when he was running for the party leadership a year ago, and has since introduced the "A-list" of approved candidates to induce local Conservative associations to select female and ethnic minority candidates. He also brought in a rule that two out of four candidates shortlisted in a target seat must be women. In August, he warned that if the party did not "make progress" more rule changes could be introduced at the end of the year.
The reforms so far have opened him to the charge that he has run roughshod over the traditional rights of local Conservatives. The board of the Conservative Party will debate a paper next week written by three prominent party activists, who are calling for the A-list to be abolished.
One of its authors, John Stafford, the chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said: "The A-list has got a major fault because it is four-and-a-half times more difficult for men than for women to get on the list, which means that the men who do get on are better than the women.
"The result is that when they go to the constituency associations, the associations choose the men, because they are better. There is also a huge bias in the A-list towards southern constituencies. It has been called the Kensington and Chelsea list. What the associations want is the opportunity to have local candidates."
The former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe has also attacked the A-list. "Neither Margaret Thatcher nor I needed this kind of help to get into Parliament," she said.
But Anne Jenkin, wife of the former Tory party deputy chairman Bernard Jenkin, and a founder of Women2Win, claimed: "Whatever the problems with the A-list, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is working. At the end we will have a Conservative Party - particularly in Parliament - that looks more like the nation we seek to serve."
Katie Perrior, of Women2Win, said: "A year ago, doing nothing was not an option. The Equal Opportunities Commission had calculated that it would take 400 years to get parity. No one is saying the system is perfect, but from the women's point of view, we're happy with the progress."
Leading the revolution
Tories stung by the claim that their party is racist were celebrating this week over the selection of Priti Patel to fight the safe Conservative seat of Witham, Essex. Another Tory activist, Ali Miraj, had failed to make the shortlist and claimed that the MP for neighbouring North Essex, Bernard Jenkin, had said privately that he would be "shocked" if the Witham Conservative Association did not choose a white middle-class male. Mr Jenkin was then the party's deputy chairman, in charge of the candidates list. Ms Patel, 34, whose parents arrived in the UK as refugees from Uganda in the early 1970s, worked for Conservative Central Office under John Major, but left in 1995 to help run the short-lived anti-EU Referendum Party, returning in 1997 to work for William Hague. In 2003, frustrated in her efforts to find a Commons seat, she complained: "Racist attitudes do persist within the party."
In May, The Times carried an attack on David Cameron's decision to create an A-list of candidates approved by head office. It was written by the newspaper's former editor, Lord Rees-Mogg, a Tory peer, who alleged that the list included people known to be "thoroughly lazy" and omitted hard-working activists, including the peer's two children. Later, the A-list was expanded, and room was found for his daughter, Annunziata, a journalist, who was selected last month for Somerton and Frome, where the Liberal Democrat majority is just 812. The choice will have pleased her Eton-educated brother, Jacob, the Conservative candidate for the seat next door, who has warned against choosing "pot plants" from state schools. Local Tories say she won the selection with a speech arguing for tax cuts and warning against the EU. She is also a local, and fought in the last election for the seat of Aberavon.
Ms Bray, 53, is the most experienced politician among the new women candidates, having been a member of the London Assembly since it was founded in 2000. In July, she was elected leader of its Conservative group. Although her political and professional careers have been pursued in London, like many Tories she has her heart in the country. She was rather unkindly nicknamed the "member for West Gloucestershire" on the London Assembly. When this nickname appeared in the Evening Standard, she made an angry telephone call to the offending reporter, unaware that the number from which she was calling was showing up. It was a Gloucester number. She was Chris Patten's press secretary when he was Conservative Party chairman in 1990-92. She fought the no-hope seat of East Ham in 1997, but will have a better chance in the newly created seat of Ealing Central and Acton.