Jemima Lewis: Why would any woman want to become an MP?

I have noticed that my male friends talk about politics in the same way that they talk about sport

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Because I am of a nostalgic bent - fond of suet puddings, Surteesian fox-hunting scenes and old men in mustard-coloured cords - I am often taken for a Tory. A couple of years ago, I was invited to become one. I was chatting to an opposition minister at a party when he suddenly clasped my hands in delight. "You must become a Tory MP!" he cried, with the urgency of Archimedes springing from his bath. "You're just the kind of person we need! You're young! You're a libertarian! YOU'RE A WOMAN!"

Flattering though it was to be asked to serve my country as a token female, I declined the offer. But perhaps David Cameron can make a more persuasive case, as he embarks on his nationwide mission to entice more women into the party.

Certainly, something needs to be done. There are currently only 17 female Tory MPs, or 9 per cent of the total (rather less than half the proportion of women in the Iraqi national assembly). Cameron has tried to reshuffle the front bench to make it look more matronly, but he simply doesn't have enough cards to play with. There are now four women in the Shadow Cabinet - twice as many as before, but still fewer than there are shadow ministers called David.

This oestrogen shortage is wreaking havoc with the party's looks. The people that Cameron is desperate to appeal to are the closet Tories of the centre ground: the sophisticated, middle-class urbanites who loathe New Labour and have no idea what the Lib Dems really stand for, but who are still too embarrassed to vote Tory. They will not come out of the closet until the party is fit to be seen with: and that means breaking up the serried ranks of pin-striped, purple-faced old coves.

Rather than resort to the New Labour method of all-women shortlists, Cameron hopes to reshape the party through a mixture of coercion and sleight of hand. He plans to draw up an "A-list" of candidates, split 50:50 between men and women, for winnable seats. He will then apply the full force of his Etonian charm to persuading grass-roots members to select the female candidates.

The people he will have to butter up most lavishly are not the crusty colonels of the Home Counties, but their wives. Conservative women are famously reluctant to vote for female candidates. They are, in fact, altogether more chauvinist than their menfolk.

I once had a boyfriend from a diehard Tory family. His parents had a huge, crumbling estate with a farm attached, which his mother ran virtually single-handed. She was always striding about with a pitchfork over her shoulder, as muscular as a shire horse, her cheeks whipped into a ruddy glow by a lifetime of physical exertion. Yet in the evening - once she had finished the accounts, shorn the sheep, fed the hens, changed a couple of tractor carburettors and played a game of tennis to wind down - she would slip into a cashmere twinset and transform, like a reverse superhero, into a surrendered wife. "I don't know why you girls bother with careers," she would simper, this horny-handed daughter of toil. "You wait till you get married; it's so wonderful having a man to look after you."

The Tory shires are full of women like this: highly organised, hard-working, ferocious characters who nonetheless cling to the conviction that women are the weaker sex. Perhaps precisely because they are such formidable creatures, they like to have a man in charge - at least nominally. That way, somewhere deep in their psyches, they can feel like delicate, pampered creatures, in a way that is quite impossible in real life.

Persuading these truculent matrons to vote for some kitten-heeled Cameron parachuted in from the city will be hard going. And, in any case, where is the Tory leader planning to find all these female candidates?

In recent years, half the men I know have become Tory MPs - but none of the women. The same appears to be true of Cameron's social circle. All the big-hitters in the so-called Notting Hill set are men, while the women have relegated themselves to traditional supporting roles as aides, PAs and wives.

Why are women of my generation - independent, ambitious, politically centrist - not staking their claim on the Tory benches? In part, it is a matter of confidence. It requires an almost sociopathic degree of self-belief to put yourself forward to run a constituency, never mind a country.

It also requires you to suspend your disbelief in a way that many women - being more pragmatic than men - cannot manage. I have noticed that my male friends talk about politics in the same way they do about sport: as if their noisy analyses of the England batting order or the single currency question might actually make a difference to the eventual outcome.

You have to be a true believer to choose a life in politics. I may or may not be, as the shadow minister presumed, a Tory at heart - but for the time being, like the rest of my girlfriends, I'm more comfortable in the closet.

jemima_lewis@dennis.co.uk

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