Women to be promoted in Hague shuffle

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE is planning to promote several women to the Tory front bench in a symbolic "break with the past" designed to show voters that his party is no longer dominated by middle-aged men.

Several of "Hague's babes", including Theresa May, who is tipped for a seat in the shadow cabinet, Jacqui Lait, who won Piers Merchant's Beckenham seat following his resignation in 1997 after an affair with a 17-year- old nightclub hostess, and Caroline Spelman, are being tipped for inclusion.

Aides to Mr Hague are worried that Labour, which has far more women in key political posts than the Conservatives, is regarded by the public as the party of women.

Yet the growing popular appeal of Ann Widdecombe, the Tory health spokesman, has convinced Mr Hague that he must search for more able women and integrate them into his team.

Other women tipped for promotion are Eleanor Laing, who was a special adviser to ministers during the last government, and Julie Kirkbride, the former journalist who is regarded as a good television performer by the Tory leadership. (Ms Kirkbride's husband, Bracknell MP Andrew Mackay, may face demotion.)

The Conservative leader has also let it be known that Angela Browning, the former minister who resigned as Tory education spokesman last year to look after her autistic son, could have a shadow cabinet position if she wants it.

Mr Hague, as part of his efforts to give his party a more caring image, wants to get rid of MPs who are closely associated with the last government. He is worried that people like Michael Howard are still seen by the public as "the former home secretary" and have failed to cultivate a new style.

"The problem is that nobody knows who the Conservative shadow cabinet are. Apart from Hague and Widdecombe there is no recognition value," said one aide. "Ann Widdecombe is really popular with the public and we want some more of that."

But the Tories' attempts to develop an image as a party for career women as well as housewives was dealt a blow last week by Tory frontbencher Nick Gibb, who shocked MPs by calling Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo a "stupid woman" in the Commons chamber.

Mr Gibb was forced to withdraw the remark and told to apologise by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, who told Mr Gibb: "You have insulted half the population with your remark about stupid women. I would like an apology as I happen to be one of them."

William Hague wants to reshape the front bench shortly before the elections to the European parliament in June. He fears that if he waits until after elections to reshuffle his team the move could be perceived as a response to a poor showing. The Conservative leader has come under fire from members of his party for failing to make the most of Labour discomfort over the resignations of Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson before Christmas.

He wants to find the right members for a new "attacking" team who are not associated with the "sleaze" of the last government and are effective on TV.

Few of the last Tory cabinet are likely to survive the reshuffle but Mr Hague is wary of wholesale sackings, for fear of a backlash from within the party.

Sir Norman Fowler, the shadow home secretary, is likely to be a casualty of the reshuffle, as is Andrew Mackay, the Northern Ireland spokesman dubbed "absent Andrew" because he was in South Africa when the historic peace agreement was signed.

Michael Howard may keep his foreign affairs job for the time being, after press speculation last week forced Mr Hague to issue a denial that he was about to be sacked. Other prospects for promotion are Liam Fox, Gary Streeter and Peter Ainsworth.

David Curry, who quit his shadow cabinet post in protest at Mr Hague's Euro-sceptic stance, will also be invited back on to the front bench if he agrees to tone down his enthusiasm for joining the single currency.