“I’m amazingly proud of the fact that in the last Parliament we had 19 women Conservative MPs, and that has got closer to 50 in this Parliament. That is progress.
“Do I want us to go further and faster, yes I do, and we’ll start by targeting his seat at the election.”
– David Cameron, House of Commons, 29 Jaunary 2014
It was supposed to be his year for women.
2014, the Prime Minister declared earlier this month, would be the year that Britain would steam ahead “on women’s equality, on women’s empowerment, on the empowerment of girls and women worldwide”.
Yesterday at Prime Ministers’ Questions, his opponents smelt a rat and couldn’t wait to take a swipe at the numbers of women leaving the parliamentary party.
“If we are to have a parliament that reflects the people that it serves,” Barry Gardiner began, “the Prime Minister must be disappointed that one in 10 of his women MPs who came in 2010 have indicated that they will not restand, and one of his most senior women chairs of committee is now facing deselection.”
And the final part of his question: “What is the Tory party’s problem with women?”
Fair point, one might think. After all, Jessica Lee last week became the fourth woman from the 2010 intake to announce she would stand down at the next general election.
But David Cameron wasn’t bowed. He said he was proud of what the party had done when it came to women, but admitted he wanted to go “further and faster”.
It was only last month that the Labour MP Sarah Champion claimed male MPs on the opposite benches were making hand gestures imitating breasts and bottoms while she spoke.
And the Lib Dems are facing their own questions over their handling of allegations of sexual impropriety.
So who’s winning the battle of the sexes?
Labour’s won this one, hasn’t it?
The party does indeed have higher female representation at Parliamentary level – 86 out of 256 MPs, or 34 per cent, compared with the Tories’ 16 per cent (48 out of 303 MPs).
All-women shortlists which produced the so-called “Blair babes” of 1997 led to considerable gains for female MPs in the party, although earlier this week, Meg Munn said she intended to stand down in 2015.
And while the Tories have been losing their female MPs, Labour has gained in the current parliament. There were 81 Labour women elected in 2010.
But the Conservatives could be forgiven for asking why they should be picked on when their coalition partners have clearly got a long way to go.
Of the Lib Dems, seven out of 56 MPs are women – just under 13 per cent. They peaked in 2005, when they had 10 female MPs.
The Lib Dems don’t have any women in the cabinet, the Tories have four out of 22 women.
In the shadow cabinet, there are 14 women out of 27 members.
Who have the Tories lost?
Only one woman so far, but they’re about to lose more.
Jessica Lee said she would stand down in 2015 just last week. Before her, Laura Sandys said she’d do the same. And before her it was Lorraine Fulbrook. Louise Mensch left after two years.
This week, Anne McIntosh, chair of the environment, food and rural affairs select committee, faces being deselected from one of the party’s safest seats in the north.
As to why they’re leaving, they’ve all given similar reasons. Ms Lee said she had taken the “difficult decision” after considering her “personal circumstances and responsibilities”; Ms Sandys said she had to consider a “wide range of family demands” and Ms Fulbrook said she wanted to “conquer fresh challenges”.
Some have pointed out that the quitting MPs are all in marginal seats.
In Ms Lee’s seat of Erewash, Derbyshire, Labour are predicted to win 70.2 per cent of the vote, above the Tories’ 29.5 per cent, according to the analysis site Electoral Calculus.
In Thanet South, Ms Sandys’ seat, the Tories have a 57.4 per cent chance of winning, compared with Labour’s 42.2 per cent, and in Ribble South, Ms Fulbrook’s seat, the Tories have a 43.3 per cent chance of winning against Labour’s 56.2 per cent chance.
In Ms Mensch’s case, she said the decision to resign had nothing to do with politics, but her husband, the American music manager Peter Mensch, said that she did it because “she’d get killed in the next election”. He added: “And listen, they hadn’t promoted her yet, and it’s not like she thought she had a future because perhaps she felt she was too outspoken.”
She later tweeted that he had made a mistake; he tweeted and said his “enthusiasm for her [is] seemingly greater than my recollection of the facts”.
How’s 2015 looking?
Sources from within the Tories fear a couple more women may yet desert come 2015.
And so far, it doesn’t look as though their selection process for 2015 will make matters much better.
Of 65 candidates who have been selected, 18 are women – about 28 per cent, though Conservative HQ points out that there are still 160 seats to be selected.
Labour are continuing with all-women shortlists. Women are in 87 selected seats out of 202 – 43 per cent. In marginal seats, the proportion of women selected raises to 54 per cent.
The female Lib Dems may have their days numbered: of the seven of them, five are among the Lib Dems’ dozen most vulnerable seats, according to the Fabian Society.
Of 106 candidates for 2015, 30 are women – 28 per cent.
Will they all follow Labour’s lead and go for all-women shortlists?
The Lib Dems have floated the idea, but said that they’ve decided not to introduce them.
The Tories, meanwhile, don’t look like they’ll go for it. As one source at Tory HQ pointed out: “We were the only party to have a female leader through meritocracy. Our concern is that good women who want to be candidates are not coming forward. It’s about plugging away and showing that women can become MPs.”
Labour are sticking with all-women shortlists.
Do all these women MPs – or lack of them – translate to votes?
Between Labour and the Tories, there isn’t a huge difference in the number of women who support them, according to the very latest polls, though they do fluctuate.
In a YouGov poll conducted for The Sun released today, of 970 women planning to vote Conservative, 37 per cent were women; the equivalent for Labour was 39 per cent. Ten per cent said they’d vote Lib Dem, and 11 per cent Ukip.
Female support for the Conservatives was higher in July 2010, soon after they came to power – at 45 per cent of 1039 women, against Labour’s 35 per cent.
Since then, female support for the Tories has slowly declined, with a few peaks and troughs, to about 32 per cent last summer, according to YouGov polls for the Sunday Times.
For Labour, the female vote has been more consistent. From 35 per cent in July 2010, it rose to 44 per cent a year later.
There’s a lot to play for for all three parties though, as far more women – 23 per cent – are undecided about who they’re going to vote for compared with men (8 per cent), according to today’s poll.
Saying that, Mr Cameron might want to reconsider his drive to bring more women MPs onto the benches by targeting Mr Gardiner’s seat of Brent North. Labour, according to Electoral Calculus, has a 95.9 per cent chance of winning, compared with the Tories’ 4 per cent.