David Cameron provoked a furious row with Tory backbenchers and grassroots members yesterday after reversing his party's opposition to all-women shortlists in a bid to boost the number of female Conservative MPs.
Only Labour has opted for all-women shortlists at previous elections, with past Conservative leaders opposing them as undemocratic. Mr Cameron's U-turn will see all-women shortlists imposed on some constituencies selecting their candidates in the New Year. Aides to Mr Cameron have said he has done all he can to promote women MPs on to the frontbench but privately admit that he is hampered by the fact that the party only has 19 sitting female MPs. That number would rise to 60 should the party win a majority at the next election, still only one fifth of its seats.
To the frustration of Conservative Central Office (CCO), local party associations have resisted rules forcing them to give half of the places on their shortlists to women. The system has failed to deliver more female Tory candidates, with men appearing in the last six major selection contests.
Announcing the change in policy at the Speaker's Committee, Mr Cameron said: "It's my intention, if we continue as we are, that some of those shortlists will be all-women shortlists to help us boost the number of Conservative women MPs," he said. "There are many very, very good women on our priority list of candidates who haven't yet been selected and I want to give them the chance to serve in parliament."
The announcement immediately saw a backlash from Tory backbenchers and grassroots members of the party. Anne Widdecombe, a staunch critic of the all-women shortlists, said that it would make some female MPs feel like second-class citizens.
"Women, no matter what their circumstances, must get to Westminster on their own merits and be able to know that when they're sitting in the House of Commons," she said.
John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said that party members were "spitting blood" about the decision. "Many constituencies are just beginning to understand what controls central office is imposing on them," he said.
Tim Montgomerie and Jonathan Isaby, editors of the influential Tory members' website ConservativeHome, also issued a statement opposing the move. "We feared this would happen," they stated. "All women shortlists are fundamentally unConservative and they have no place in a party pledged to meritocracy and localism."
Gordon Brown, who also gave evidence to the committee, said he wanted to see the number of women Labour MPs rise to 120 after the next election, expected in the spring. He confirmed all-women shortlists would again be imposed but ruled out the use of ethnic minority shortlists to boost the number of black and Asian MPs.
"Eleven per cent of the population comes from black or Asian or minority population and our determination to increase that representation is by taking measures at a local level encourage constituents that this is the right thing to do," he said.
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