David Cameron has hinted that he may resort to Labour's device of all-women shortlists to change the overwhelmingly male composition of his party in Parliament.
The Tory leader introduced new rules yesterday which he hopes will increase the number of women and people from ethnic minorities chosen to fight winnable seats for the Tories.
"If we don't make progress, I'm going to review the situation at the end of the year," he said. "No one inside or outside the Conservative Party should have the slightest doubt about how seriously I take this issue. I will make good my pledge to bring about a substantial increase in the number of women Conservative MPs."
The changes have angered some party members, who complain that they undermine the role of party activists, and are patronising to women. He was also criticised by Labour for not going all the way and compelling constituency parties to select more women.
But Mr Cameron insisted that he has made progress because of seven of the 22 Tory parliamentary candidates selected since last year's election are women and two are from ethnic minorities - substantially higher proportions than the numbers of Tory MPs currently in Parliament. He said bringing in compulsory all-women shortlists at this stage would be a "step too far".
Mr Cameron's controversial priority A-list for candidates has been expanded to around 150 with almost 60 per cent women.
Under the latest changes, target seat associations with fewer than 300 members will be expected to select their candidates through an open primary which will allow non-party members a say. In larger associations the full membership will select the shortlist of four, including women. The only constituency parties that will be allowed to choose their candidates in the traditional fashion will be those that volunteer to operate an all-women shortlist.
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries said: "It fills me with horror to think that after the next general election, people who meet me may think that I was selected in an undemocratic manner from an all-female shortlist. All candidates should be selected entirely on the basis of merit not gender."
The former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe said the A-list initiative was " an insult to women". "Neither Margaret Thatcher nor I needed this kind of help to get into Parliament," she told a Sunday newspaper. "I have spoken to some women on the A-list and they have said they hate it and regard it as patronising, but realise they have to go along with it."
Tim Montgomerie, who edits the Conservative Home website, described the reforms as "deeply disappointing". He said: "Conservative HQ expects volunteer activists to devote years of fundraising to the party but they no longer trust them to choose their parliamentary candidates."
The Labour Party chairman Hazel Blears said: "This step is Cameron's latest, but probably not last, admission that the Conservative Party are still failing women.David Cameron has yet again failed to back up his words with action."
Norman Lamb, chief of staff to the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, said: "This is yet another Cameron initiative of style over substance. If David Cameron is relying on the Tory grassroots to bring about this change, he is likely to be disappointed."
* Public support for the Labour Party has falled to 31 per cent, its worst rating since 1987, according to a Guardian/ICM poll. The Conservatives climbed to a 40 per cent rating, a lead that would give Mr Cameron a narrow majority in the Commons. Support for the Liberal Democrats rose to 22 per cent.Reuse content