Tea and moral rectitude: 'Having become an unmarried mother in 1987, I was a red rag to a bull, but I fought two elections for the Conservatives . . . did well in both and had a political track record', says Harriet Crawley

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The Independent Online
FOR THE born-again Tory ladies of South Suffolk, the Tim Yeo affair is a double blow. Not only has their MP, a married man and Minister of the Crown, admitted to an affair and to fathering a child, but his lover, Julia Stent, a Conservative councillor in Hackney, is unrepentant over having his child, and thus joining the ranks of unmarried mothers.

This double whammy hits especially hard in the new Conservative climate of 'back to basics' and 'family values'. The mayor of Haverhill, Aldine Horrigan, and Sylvia Byham, a Conservative councillor, publicly condemned Mr Yeo. They said he had let the side down and should resign. I don't know if they think every MP who has been unfaithful to his wife should resign; if so, the country would be awash with by-elections.

I was always uneasy with John Major's recent hot flush of morality for the simple reason that I know too many Conservative MPs. Surprise, surprise, they are just like you and me, no worse and no better, and isn't that why we elected them - to represent us, not to lord it over us and tell us how to live, but to be of some practical use?

For every married MP caught having an affair, 10 are not, and no amount of pontificating from the Prime Minister or anyone else will change the behaviour of British Members of Parliament. As anyone who has read the riveting diaries of Alan Clark knows, getting caught is the only sin, and it's a sin a wise constituency association will overlook as a private matter between the MP, his family and his lover.

I don't know Mr Yeo personally, but on the face of it he has been a conscientious MP, a good minister and a devoted father to two children, both with serious health problems. What is more, his wife, Diane, stands full square behind him. As Hillary Clinton said on American television in defence of her husband, 'Heck, if I can forgive him, why can't you?'

Interestingly, there has been no public condemnation of Ms Stent who, according to her own trenchant statement, knows exactly what she's doing: 'I am quite capable of making my own decisions. I am in full-time employment and neither I nor my daughter are a burden on the state.'

Can this be a Conservative councillor speaking, the Tory ladies of South Suffolk must be asking. Yes. And they would do well to listen. There is a new breed of Conservative woman who will be heard, and if the party wants to remain representative it must tackle its own backwoodsmen - who are not men at all, but women, a small but dangerous minority who lace each cup of tea with moral rectitude and by doing so alienate the younger generation and keep other women out of the House of Commons.

Mr Major is no match for this born-again brigade. All his initiatives to get more women into Parliament have failed, and we are left with one abysmal statistic: of 344 Conservative MPs, 19 are women.

I have crossed swords many times with Tory ladies of the Shires, and in my experience the safer the seat the more priggish the women. Of course I realise that, having become an unmarried mother in 1987 (I have since married), I was a red rag to a bull, but I fought two elections for the Conservatives (one general election and one Euro election), did well in both, and therefore had a political track record. Nevertheless, only last year at a Euro selection meeting in the Home Counties, a middle-aged woman in twin-set and pearls asked me if I was aware that the sittings of the European Parliament made no allowances for school holidays.

Last spring I went before several selection committees and it came as a shock to realise that being an unmarried mother was only half the problem. The other half was being a mother. At each meeting a small but determined group of women told me through their hostile questioning that it was quite wrong for any woman with a small child to apply for such a demanding job. These women saw it as their role to be the guardians of my morality.

I have spoken to many Conservative women trying to get into Parliament and the overwhelming feeling is that you can't win. If you're married you should be looking after your husband; if you're not married, you might want to look after someone else's husband. If you haven't got children then you will have, and if you have children then your place is with them.

But in urban constituencies, marginal seats and Labour strongholds it is an entirely different story. Here, Conservative women are tough and tolerant. A few months before the 1987 general election, when I fought Ken Livingstone in Brent East, I announced that I was pregnant. At that moment it was the women who gave me their unfailing support, and at an emergency meeting of the local Tory association, when a troop of disapproving young men we had never seen before, in brown suits and ties, pronounced me unsuitable, the good ladies of Brent East ate them alive.

Many people said at the time that it was an advantage to be an expectant, unmarried mother in a constituency such as Brent East. Certainly I got one extra vote from a lady who clasped me to her ample bosom and said she would definitely vote for me. I thanked her warmly - only to find out later that she had assumed the father was Ken Livingstone.

In 1989, when I fought the Euro seat of London Central, I was saved by a woman I'd never met. In the early stages of my selection my curriculum vitae was about to be tossed into the wastepaper basket when one of the committee, Yvonne Constance, now a Conservative councillor in Kensington and Chelsea, asked if the private lives of all candidates were being scrutinised; if so, she had a few questions to ask about some of the men. Thanks to Yvonne, I got an interview, was then adopted and, although we lost, we had a 1 per cent swing to the Tories when the rest of Britain went 9 per cent to Labour.

But the prejudice is still there, and is so widespread that many outstanding women who would make superb Members of Parliament and be an enormous asset to the Conservative Party have simply given up.

No political party can be the guardian of people's private morals. The idea is absurd. Although Mr Yeo has been forced out of office, in the long run the Tory ladies of South Suffolk will find that theirs is a Pyrrhic victory.

The author is a journalist and writer. Her thriller, 'Painted Lady', will be published by Macmillan in October.

Andrew Marr is unwell.

(Photographs omitted)