New Model Tories: Dave's babes

Despite their love affair with Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives have never been exactly female-friendly. But now the dinosaurs who still refer to women party members as 'Tory totty' are on the verge of extinction, says Jo-Anne Nadler
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A decade ago, over dinner with a then-thrusting male Tory MP, a disagreement lead to his charge that, being a woman, I didn't really have the right to challenge him. He may have been a maverick but, damagingly for his party, there was an all too familiar ring to his chauvinism.

What with electing Britain's first sitting female MP in Nancy Astor and our first and only female Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party really ought to have been a bastion of feminism, or at the very least, female-friendly. But in recent years, and particularly in contrast with oestrogen-powered New Labour, it too often gave the impression of being populated by characters like my dinner companion. Other than a few high-profile women, the public face of the party has been overwhelmingly male - in fact belying the fact that behind the scenes, at the grassroots, women have long ruled the roost but traditionally favoured their sons rather than their daughters as their parliamentary representatives.

Now it seems the boot, or perhaps the kitten heel, is on the other foot. I'm in no way suggesting that David Cameron is anything less than an alpha male but he's learnt a vital electoral lesson that the Tories' macho tendencies have done them no favours. Cameron looks like a bloke, even, dare I say it, a rather relaxed Tory Boy, but he sounds much more like a woman than any Tory leader I can remember. It's no accidental gender confusion. Until 1997, the majority of women who voted backed the Conservatives. That electoral advantage was lost to Tony Blair and the trend has continued ever since (only curtailed in opinion polls since the election of Cameron). Of course, it's a complex cocktail that goes to influencing how we vote, but evidence certainly shows that New Labour's emphasis on public services was far more popular with women than the Tories' traditional preoccupations with the Euro and immigration. Added to the policy agenda, there was New Labour's radical policy to boost its female MPs through all-women short lists. The party looked more female and sounded more female - and lo and behold, more women voted for it. Hence Cameron's gradual change in tone which has seen his party champion health, education and the environment as well as more explicit "women's issues" such as work-life balance and quality of life rather than tax cuts, crime and defence.

That's the feminised narrative. What about the set-dressing? The Cameroons are certainly aware that communicating this message is made far harder by a shortage of female representatives. Short of replicating Blairite positive discrimination, the party says it is doing everything it can to increase the number of women in Parliament. This means making the selection process more professional and implementing its controversial A-list procedure which seeks to promote women candidates in safe seats.

More subtly, notice how Tory spokesmen are these days more likely to be younger, to be open-collared and female-friendly even if they are not women: think MP Eddie Vaizey, an urbane TV performer, rather than Nicholas Soames, a pinstriped traditionalist. During last year's leadership contest, the two competing Davids displayed very different instincts about this issue. For David Davis, posing with women in DD T-shirts, and revealing a model of a marriage in which his wife shared little if any of his professional life struck a reactionary note. By contrast David Cameron and his wife seemed evenly matched, a sympathetic couple juggling work, children and a life in a way with which a younger generation would empathise far more easily.

We don't know much about Samantha Cameron's own political creed but as a political wife she is the perfect emblem of David's attempts to make over the Tory's image. Appearing relaxed and attractive without having to try too hard she is both independent and supportive. It's a dramatic contrast with the curiously mute puppets that were made of previous leader's spouses. Norma Major, Ffion Hague and Betsy Duncan Smith are all rather impressive women but you wouldn't have known that from the way the Party presented them.

Now these efforts to woo women, both as voters and as supporters, are paying off - most obviously with the growing success of the monthly networking events held by party pressure group, Women to Win. A fair bit of wine, but no cheese and certainly no raffles mark these inner-city dos for young professionals as a step- change in Tory events. It is a lot more Sex and the City than specs and the shires. Typically attended by interested but non-partisan twenty- and thirtysomethings, these are smart, ambitious, fashionably dressed young women who are comfortable admitting that the party now has a certain cachet under David Cameron. The stigma of attending a Tory event seems now to be passing and gone are the days, hopefully, that such women would be dismissed as Tory Totty. I attended a policy discussion recently where the prospect of positive discrimination was being passionately opposed by a young woman with a tight perm and a royal-blue suit. There was no mistaking her role model, but that era has passed. Today's Tory woman is as likely to be carrying her kid's satchel in one hand and the organic shopping bag in the other as she is a formal handbag. She looks a lot more like the rest of us - which is good for the party. We'll just have to see if she has Maggie's staying power.