Not just men in grey suits: Now it's easier for women to join Tory benches, says May

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Theresa May said last night it is easier for a woman to become a Tory MP today than it was when she entered Parliament in 1997.

The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, who is the most senior female in David Cameron's Shadow Cabinet, hailed Chloe Smith's victory in Norwich North as a sign of how far the party has come in a decade.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mrs May said the Tory party had recognised the need for more diversity and gender balance in Parliament. Her comments came after 27-year-old Miss Smith, a Tory official and businesswoman, became the youngest MP in the Commons following her victory in Thursday's by-election.

Miss Smith is also the youngest woman to be elected a Conservative MP.

Mrs May, who co-ordinated the Conservative by-election campaign, said if the Tories were to win the next election by just one seat, the female representation on the Conservative benches would go from 17 to 55 – although as a proportion this would only be 16 per cent of the total Tory MPs.

David Cameron has made the ambitious pledge that within the first term of a Tory government, one third of ministers would be women. There are 80 female Tory candidates, many of them in winnable seats.

Asked whether it was easier today for women to be elected to the Tory benches, Mrs May said: "Yes, I think it is, in the sense that the party has recognised things needed to change and recognises the value of having a diversity of candidates and a diversity of MPs."

She said there was "more to be done" on selection, but added: "I think the party has transformed itself considerably. We need to make sure that we are getting women selected and people with diverse backgrounds selected."

In 1997, Mrs May was one of 14 Tory female MPs – just three fewer than today. The shadow minister riled party traditionalists in 2002 when she referred to the Tories as the "nasty party".

Miss Smith is emblematic of a new generation of Tory MPs, after the clearout of old-school "bedblockers" who fell foul of Mr Cameron's rules on expenses. But senior Tories have warned that Miss Smith should not be "over-promoted" on the back of the stunning victory in Norwich.

After Labour won power in 1997 with 101 female MPs, the term "Blair Babe" was coined. Yesterday Miss Smith was described as a "Cameron Babe". While senior Tories dismissed the label last night, they were happy for the image of a young Tory woman to be so prominent, especially after Caroline Flint's jibe about Gordon Brown's use of women ministers as "window dressing".

There were also signs of a new uniform for high-flying Conservative women – the grey trousersuit.

Miss Smith is pictured on her website with Mrs May and shadow minister Maria Miller – tipped for Mr Cameron's first Cabinet. All are wearing near-identical charcoal-grey trousers and jacket.