Tories turn to Sandra Howard to shore up their flagging fortunes

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Indy Politics

Sandra Howard, the wife of the leader of the Tory party, is stepping out of the shadows to help bolster her husband's flagging political fortunes. Mrs Howard has been a source of support for her husband behind the scenes, but two weeks ago she appeared alongside him on the daytime TV show This Morning in an attempt to broaden his appeal.

Sandra Howard, the wife of the leader of the Tory party, is stepping out of the shadows to help bolster her husband's flagging political fortunes. Mrs Howard has been a source of support for her husband behind the scenes, but two weeks ago she appeared alongside him on the daytime TV show This Morning in an attempt to broaden his appeal.

Tonight Mrs Howard and other leading Tory women will host a grand reception for glossy magazines, including Hello!, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping.

The move shows the Conservatives have recognised the political impact of women's magazines, as well as the appeal of Mrs Howard, who was a leading model in the 1960s.

Labour grasped the importance of the female media soon after assuming power in 1997. Cherie Blair has hosted receptions at Downing Street for glossy magazine editors and even appeared in Marie Claire having her lipstick applied by Carole Caplin, her lifestyle guru, on the prime ministerial bed.

Now the Conservatives hope that big circulation publications such as Hello! will one day feature Tory MPs alongside film stars and footballers' wives.

Liam Fox, the Tory co-chairman, will officially host the Conservatives' summer party for women at the grand Westminster house of Charles Hendry, a Tory MP. Conservative Central Office's usual invitation list has been torn up in favour of women MPs and journalists from women's titles including Take a Break, Zest and Vanity Fair.

The star attraction will be Mrs Howard. A hostess of considerable charm, she is seen as an asset after her recent television appearance with her husband and repeated visits to meet voters in Birmingham and Leicester. Theresa May, the party's family spokeswoman, and Julie Kirkbride, its arts and culture spokeswoman, will co-host the party, at which men will be firmly in the minority.

Ms May, known as much for her commitment to women in politics as for her extensive collection of kitten heels, will be there to explain why the family will be a central issue for the Tories at the next election.

The decision to eschew establishment journals such as The Economist in favour of Handbag.Com and Marie Claire has been taken by party strategists who warn that the female vote will be crucial at the next general election. The party also wants to shrug off its intolerant, patriarchal image and is keen to emphasise it no longer disapproves of single mothers or couples who live together.

The Conservatives believe that women, who were crucial to Tony Blair's two election victories, are now abandoning the Prime Minister over doubts about his credibility and the decision to take Britain to war in Iraq. They say health and education provision, a key concern of women with children, will be a vital battleground at the next election, alongside law and order and immigration.

But the party, which has only a handful of women MPs and has rejected any form of positive discrimination to elect more, will have a tough time convincing women that it is more in touch with their needs than Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

A Tory party spokeswoman said it was the beginning of a "fresh approach" to communicating the Conservative message. "We want to extend our message about public services and to introduce some of our female personalities to a wider audience," she said.

"We realise that we need to be fresh in our approach and our summer reception is part of that new way of thinking. Which woman does not go to an airport without a glossy magazine under her arm?

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