'Patronising' Davis fails to impress women of Tory party

So when Mr Davis faced the twin challenge yesterday of a slot on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and a speech to the Conservative Women's Organisation most assumed he'd be on his best behaviour.

But, far from impressing the women of the Tory party, Mr Davis, who appeared at both events with his rival David Cameron, merely compounded his image problem.

Asked by the Woman's Hour presenter Martha Kearney if they preferred blondes or brunettes, Mr Cameron tactfully refused to comment. Mr Davis however rushed in with "blondes" - a doubly unwise comment given that his wife, Doreen, has red hair.

Next, the pair were asked for their choice of underwear. Mr Cameron responded with boxer shorts, Mr Davis with briefs. For many women, enough said.

But despite the occasional frivolous question, yesterday was a serious day for both candidates who need to prove they can attract women to the party.

A show of hands at the Conservative Women's Organisation indicated that Tory women activists preferred Mr Davis's younger rival, Mr Cameron, by a margin of almost five to one.

The vote was held after the two contenders, and journalists, had left the hall. One witness estimated the result as 66 per cent for Mr Cameron, 14 per cent for Mr Davis, and 20 per cent don't knows. Earlier, Mr Cameron's speech was greeted with an ovation lasting 30 seconds, three times as long as the round of applause for Mr Davis.

The setback for Mr Davis came only hours after a Populus poll, for The Times, suggested that he was closing the gap in the long-running contest, with 50 per cent of Tory voters polled saying they preferred him, against 37 per cent for Mr Cameron.

But the leadership election, which closes on 6 December, is a poll only of paid-up party members, not Tory voters generally, and the representatives at yesterday's conference in London make up a powerful section of that smaller electorate. The CWO's president, Pamela Parker, said she was "horrified" by what she described as Mr Davis's "patronising" behaviour.

"He should have just said nothing," she said. "It is bad taste and it has done his campaign no good. I am sure he would be the first to say, 'oh my God, I should not have said that'. He slipped up on the DD thing and he slipped up on the blonde thing. It is patronising. He is not patronising in real life but it is a slip-up."

Mr Davis defended himself by accusing his critics of "a sense of humour failure". He said the T-shirts were the idea of a female supporter. Speaking on Woman's Hour he said: "All right, some people got upset by it, I am sorry about that. But it was a sense of humour failure." He repeated the remark about "sense of humour failure" at the women's conference, adding that his wife had been joking when she told The Mail on Sunday that he was "a male chauvinist pig".

Both contenders emphasised the need to have more women elected as Tory MPs, although both rejected the solution adopted by the Labour Party, which compels constituency parties to choose from all-women shortlists.

Mr Cameron said he was in favour of "everything short of" all-women lists, including the use of head-hunters and mentors.

Mr Davis, a former party chairman, promised he would ensure that women were present at every level of the party organisation: "If we get back the women's vote, not only will we win, we will deserve to," he said.

Several delegates were emphatic that Mr Cameron had won the day. Kathleen Irvine, from Newcastle upon Tyne, said: "David Cameron was the more innovative. I think he would have more appeal in the North-east. I know that David Davis is an MP for a Yorkshire seat, but he's not a Yorkshireman."

Patricia Botfield from Mid-Worcestershire, said: "Cameron is the new look. That's what Blair was."

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