Joan Smith: First Blair's babes, now it's Dave's dolls

Our writer mistrusts the Tory conversion to all-women shortlists
Click to follow

There is a famous photograph, taken on 2 May 1997, of Tony Blair surrounded by all but a handful of the 101 women elected as Labour MPs in the previous day's landslide victory. Even at the time it struck me as a little cheesy, but it's one of a series of pictures, including a sleepy Cherie Blair opening the front door in her nightclothes, which sum up the heady atmosphere of Labour's extraordinary first week in power.

So when I heard about David Cameron's dramatic change of heart last week on all-women candidate shortlists, it struck me that he was already thinking about the images that might define his first days in office if he becomes prime minister next year.

Until last week, Cameron had absolutely no chance of beaming smugly among the perfectly groomed heads of 100 Tory women MPs. His claim to be a moderniser was undermined by his party's mulish reluctance to select female candidates for winnable seats, and his own unwillingness to promote existing women MPs (such as Caroline Spelman and Theresa May) to any of the top jobs on his front bench.

His options after next year's election were limited: avoid lining up to be photographed with his party's 60 or so female MPs – the most likely number judging by the outcome of selections to date – or pose for the iconic snap and risk someone adding 40 blanks to represent Cameron's "missing" women.

I'm not at all surprised by the Tory leader's U-turn, which reverses years of sneering opposition in Conservative ranks to anything that smacks of positive discrimination. Stealing Blair's clothes is surely a sacrifice worth making if it smoothes Dave's road to power. The Conservatives really do have a lamentable record on gender; in 1997, the Tories managed to get only a feeble 13 female MPs into the House of Commons.

That didn't stop Labour's female intake being patronised with the label "Blair's babes" and some of them still talk about the shock they experienced when they arrived at Westminster. Even now, sexism is not exactly an unknown phenomenon among MPs and all-women shortlists have been used to claim that inferior candidates have been elected merely because of their gender. (Laughable, I know, when you think of some of the idiots who get there by the usual methods.)

There's bound to be some sour grapes in Tory circles, where opposition to measures which might further equality is more entrenched, but Cameron clearly thinks it's a price worth paying to make his party electable. Better late than never, but let's not forget he's an opportunist; the row about MPs' expenses has offered him the chance to kill a sacred cow, with an unprecedented number of seats becoming vacant and selections taking place in a very different atmosphere.

I regard all-women shortlists as a regrettable (and temporary) necessity, and I assume that Cameron would rather have a winnable row about "political correctness" than another batch of headlines about his ghastly European friends.

If I were being cynical, I'd say that all-women shortlists are a cheap way for Cameron to parade his modernity, which was battered last week when the Obama administration questioned his party's links with anti-Semites and Nazi sympathisers.

With traditional party loyalties fracturing, the Tory leader knows that the Conservatives need more women candidates, and the prospect of a general election victory next year means he can whip local parties into line.

The real test will come if and when there's a Cameron cabinet, when we'll discover whether women are genuinely welcome in the Conservative party or just window dressing.