Is David Cameron sexist? Certainly there's plenty for wannabe Dave-bashers to get their teeth into. Clearly he put his foot in it when he accused Nadine Dorries of being "extremely frustrated" in the Commons, which the overgrown schoolboys around him found hilarious. But no one who values manners as highly as he does would have made a remark like that intending to cause offence. Not only did he apologise to Dorries at the weekend, but he also sent her a "forgive me" text at the time (which she did).
And his "calm down, dear" quip was the sort that any telly-watcher might have used. In that context, surely, sexism is in the eye of the beholder. The remark says more, I think, about the dangerous ease with which Cameron insouciantly switches to automatic pilot – at Prime Minister's Questions or in interviews – than it does about his attitude to women.
So does the Tory "women problem" come from a visceral suspicion that Cameron himself is unsympathetic to women? It may, but if so, I think it's wrong. And if it is wrong, that is striking in itself, given the attitudes that prevailed during his upbringing.
When he was growing up in the 1970s, at his parents' dinner parties, at the end of the meal the women would "withdraw" to allow the gentlemen to enjoy their brandy and cigars. His mother, though she followed both her mother and grandmother into becoming a JP, has never had much time for women occupying high-profile jobs. Those are men's jobs, she feels, and she was disinclined to intrude on her husband when work required him to have a late night in London. That was his sphere.
Twenty-five years ago Cameron was talking to a woman, quite old enough to be his mother, who was musing about tennis being a more captivating game than cricket. The young David disagreed and said he thought she felt that, "because women have the attention span of a gnat".
At university his record scarcely singled him out as a budding Andrea Dworkin. He was not short of girlfriends (few of them shrinking violets) and had "some crackers", a male acquaintance of the time said. One or two jilted girlfriends felt the break-ups very deeply indeed, but those do not in themselves mean he was a "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" merchant. Rather the contrary. Female friends have reported him as having been extremely solicitous about their welfare post-split, although one or two hearts remained broken. The all-male Bullingdon club doesn't help in hindsight either.
Cameron is, however, very good at personal empathy and hates the idea of being thought condescending. And, as with his attitude to homosexuality, his attitude to equality between the sexes has matured. As an ultra-pragmatist who is no keener on "isms" than he is on "ologies", he would naturally shy away from labels like sexism or feminism. But what does float his boat is personal responsibility. So he would resist any prejudice in favour of tokenism, women as victims, men as implicit oppressors and, perhaps even a little rebelliously, fall in love with a woman who created her own business and had a mind of her own, namely Samantha. He also has huge admiration for his close aides Gabby Bertin and Kate Fall, and is said to believe it is impossible to have a "360-degree view of life without having 50 per cent of the population represented in your inner circle".
His wife, though talented and driven, has, of course, had fortune on her side. Whether he can relate to the mass of women struggling to make ends meet in the face of economic and social hardship is not a question about sexism. The same is asked about his attitude to men. It requires a leap. He can demonstrate a capacity to empathise when he meets them, but does it drive his politics?
James Hanning is co-author of "Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative".