Wanted: ambitious women for safe Tory seats; blue rinses needn't apply

BLAIR HAS his 101 "Babes", Hague only has 14. The Tories have suddenly decided this is not good enough.

William Hague has said that he wants to change all this, and yesterday it was reported that the party has set a secret target of putting up 250 female candidates to fight the next general election.

Central Office denies there is a quota but Roger Freeman, who is overseeing candidate selection, says he hopes to recruit an array of high-calibre women who will prove irresistible to the selection panel. A lot of high- calibre women will say that the selection panels found them mysteriously easy to resist but wish him well anyway.

Everyone says that in the Labour Party the men discriminate against the women, but in the Tory party it is the women who do the discriminating. Not the voters, but those who sit on the selection committees.

"It was just plain old-fashioned jealousy!" says one MP. These Tory women are not so much true blue as blue rinse and they have had little to offer their party but time. So why would they want a young thrusting female MP? Why take a chance on all those hormones when you could get a nice barrister in a pin stripe with two children and a wife?

Not that most Tory woman would tell you that on the record. But then Tory women do not tend to go on the record about such things.

"I've been to so many meetings at Tory party conferences on women and no one talks during the proceedings. On the whole, I think Tory women are quite well-behaved," says Mary Ann Stephenson, of the Fawcett Society.

But, after the meetings, it all spills out. "They just say they've been trying for the past 28 years and they keep going to training courses and having their hair done and buying the right suits and they still don't get selected."

The whole subject of women MPs makes Edwina Currie laugh. "People do say it is the women who hold other women back with the Tories, but I think the whole party is stuck in a 1950s' time warp.

"There is no heartfelt wish to have MPs who reflect the country as a whole. That would mean talking about gay MPs or black MPs. Instead they are still talking about women. There has been women's liberation since the Sixties. The Tory party, bless their cotton socks, have just caught up."

A study by the Tory think-tank, the Bow Group, has found that barely 3 per cent of party members are women aged under 45.

Fiona Buxton, deputy chairman of the Bow Group, says the average age of members is 67. Bea Campbell, the author of Iron Ladies, calls it a "generational catastrophe".

Linda McDougall, author of Westminster Women and wife of the Labour MP, Austin Mitchell, says that the Conservatives should see this as an opportunity to change forever the view that they see women only as wives, grannies or nannies.

"William Hague could make a wholesale change in the thinking," she says. Now,women are selected only in extreme circumstances. "When there is sleaze or scandal, they turn to a woman," she says, pointing out that Jacqui Lait replaced Piers Merchant.

Obviously this is not the most sensible way to go about increasing the number of women MPs. Labour achieved its great leap forward with all-women shortlists, subsequently abandoned as illegal. Many say that without such drastic measures the Tories will never make an impact.

There is not a party in Europe with a significant number of women in its parliament that has not used quotas. But even the word is enough to make many Tories see red.

"Every woman in Parliament should be able to look every man in the eye and say that she got their the same way that he did," says the leading Tory MP, Ann Widdecombe.

The leadership wants to fudge this, however. Mr Hague has proposed that 25 per cent of the candidates interviewed in the first round of Westminster selections should be women. The party rejected that but it could change.

The Tory MP Julie Kirkbride is young and thrusting and believes that women should make up half of every shortlist. Others, like the former Tory adviser, Sheila Gunn, are now coming round to this way of thinking. "One talented woman friend searched for a winnable seat for more than 20 years. At first she was told that she was too young, that she had a young family and so couldn't devote herself fully to the job and, then, that she was too old at over 40," she wrote in the Spectator last year. "It would be unforgivable for her daughters to suffer the same fate."

Miss Widdecombe does not believe they will. She says her heart used to sink when she saw a mostly female selection panel, but those days are gone. "We must not go down the route of positive discrimination. I'm not very impressed with most of "Blair's Babes". They get their pagers out before they even begin to speak. Not all of them, but many of those who came in because of discrimination are very substandard."

This dislike of the Babes seems to cross most divides. Bea Campbell says the Tories should see this as a great opportunity now that Labour has failed on women.

"The Baroness Jays of this world hate what they call Seventies feminism - simple things like equal pay - and the coterie around Blair are deeply misogynist. They are short-haired, stiff, young centurions who feel very safe in an environment where they don't have to carry the burden of women and what matters to them."

Over to you, Mr Hague.

Leading Article,

Review, page 3

The Five Tribes of Conservative Women

Suburban Queen

Dame Jill Knight

Quintessential Edgbaston Tory madame. Hyacinth Bucket loves her! Big hair, big eyes, big dresses, and very big on loyalty. Paid-up member of hang `em and flog `em and heavily involved in Townswomen's Guilds. Uncompromising views. Enthusiast of tapestry.

Loud and Proud

Teresa Gorman

Libertarian. Billericay woman to the core. Wants out of Europe now, if not sooner, and wrote a book called `Bastards!' that was all about Europe but could have been about men. Extreme believer in HRT and loud jackets. Knocked 10 years off her age to get selected.

The Matron

Ann Widdecombe

Hattie Jacques of the Tories. The woman who assassinated Michael Howard by saying he had "something of the night" about him. Good sport, superb speaker, fervent anti-abortionist. Spends her spare time researching Charles II's escape. Has risen above Doris Karloff taunts.

Lady Bountiful

Virginia Bottomley

Former psychiatric social worker turned politician. The caring, if bland, face of the Tories but was too robotic on TV for her own good. Very Marks & Spencer and fragrant too. From grand old family whose members believe in public service above all.

Hague Babe

Julie Kirkbride

Young, working-class and a true believer in the Portillo way. Only a few years ago was just another journalist in a black leather skirt. Married to Northern Ireland spokesman Andrew Mackay. Tipped to go all the way to the middle.