David Cameron ‘open’ to all-women shortlists on eve of reshuffle
Prime minister expected to promote a number of women, as he moves to project a modern and diverse face of the Tory party.
David Cameron is open to the idea of the eventual introduction of all-women shortlists on a voluntary basis, senior Tory sources have said, amid fears that the party could fail to boost its number of female MPs at next year’s general election.
On the eve of his final planned reshuffle before the election, in which the prime minister is expected to promote a number of women, the controversial issue of all-women shortlists returns to the agenda as a cross-party group raises the prospect of “prescriptive quotas”.
The all-party parliamentary group on women in parliament, whose inquiry is supported by the speaker, John Bercow, issues its findings as the prime minister moved to project a modern and diverse face of the Tory party with his final big reshuffle before the election.
Cameron, who hosted allies at a summer barbecue at Chequers on Sunday, will embark on the first stages of his reshuffle Monday evening when, in the Commons, he meets ministers who face the sack.
It is understood that many ministers have prepared the ground by suggesting to him they would leave office in the last pre-election reshuffle.
The prime minister is planning to say goodbye to old hands such as the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke, chief whip Sir George Young, and Commons leader, Andrew Lansley.
Cameron is expected to start the second phase of his reshuffle on Tuesday when new arrivals and promoted ministers walk along Downing Street in the full glare of the cameras to meet him. The usual Tuesday morning meeting of the cabinet has been cancelled to allow for the reshuffle.
Esther McVey, the employment minister, Nicky Morgan, the women’s minister, and Liz Truss, the childcare minister, are all expected to be given promotion. The prime minister will also name Britain’s next European commissioner, allowing him to sell the name to the incoming European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, when they meet on the fringes of an EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday.
It is understood that Cameron has decided against nominating an MP for the role, not wanting to waste vital resources, which could go towards marginal seats in a costly byelection.
This move by Cameron, which shows the influence of Lynton Crosby, will dash the hopes of Lansley, who had hoped to crown his career as European commissioner. Juncker has told all EU leaders that they will increase their chances of securing a large portfolio in his commission if they nominate a woman, a point reinforced on Sunday on Sky News by Viviane Reding, until recently the Luxembourg commissioner.
It is understood that Lady Hogg, former head of John Major’s policy unit, is being considered. But a final decision has not been reached. Archie Norman, the former Tory MP who is now chair of ITV plc, is also being linked to the post.
Cameron hopes that promoting women to important posts at all ranks of his government will show that the Tory party is modernising. But there are fears that the party is falling behind in the selection of women candidates in parliamentary seats.
Amid concerns that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are selecting more women for safe seats, Cameron has put the Conservatives‘ chairman, Grant Shapps, “on the case” to get more female candidates into winnable seats.
Cameron is also coming under pressure from senior Tory women to bring in all-women shortlists if the party does not get more female MPs at the next election.
Backing for that move is boosted by the findings of an enquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on women in parliament, which has called for a debate on introducing “prescriptive quotas for Westminster”. Its report says: “The inquiry recognises that quotas in politics are not universally accepted; indeed only the Labour party has used them in the form of all-women shortlists for parliamentary selections. That said, given the fast-track results that often arise from their introduction, it would be useful for the House to find time to debate prescriptive quotas for Westminster.”
Maria Miller, the former Tory culture secretary and women’s minister, said that all-women shortlists could be a necessity. She told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News: “At this point we don’t believe that we need to go that far, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out all-women shortlists if we don’t make the progress we need to because as a party we need to make sure we are connected to the electorate we want to represent – 52% of that electorate are women and it is important that our party has a good representation of women within it.”
Of 14 seats where Tory MPs are retiring, five women have been selected so far, but two of those replace existing female MPs. About 16% of the party’s MPs are women, compared with 33% of Labour’s MPs.
At present just three of 27 Conservative and Lib Dem members of Cameron’s cabinet are women.
Nicky Morgan, the Tory women’s minister, was recently slapped down by party officials for suggesting “no option would be off the table”, including all-women’s shortlists, if the gender balance did not improve next year.
Officially the party says it has no plans to bring in all-women shortlists, amid fierce opposition within local Tory associations about the idea of positive discrimination of any sort. However, it is understood Cameron thinks it possible for the party to encourage shortlist use on a voluntary basis, while making clear that no association would have this imposed upon it.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, described Cameron’s plans to promote women as a “last-minute worry about voters”.
Cooper told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News: “I think if he was serious about having women in his cabinet – he has had four years to do so. There are only three women in the cabinet of between 20 and 30 people at the moment, and I think this is going to look really like a last-minute worry about votes because he knows that he has got a real blind spot when it comes to women.”
Labour, which pioneered the use of all-women shortlists, initially brought the lists in on a voluntary basis. Senior Tories point out that one shortlist for a retiring MP, with the seat of Cannock Chase, and some others around Britain had already had only female candidates.
However, some female Conservative politicians are in despair that the South Suffolk seat of Tim Yeo has picked an all-male shortlist from a longlist of 11 containing seven women.
Last week, Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of Labour, spoke of the difficulties in getting more women from her own party into parliament through all-women shortlists.
Harman said: “This is has always been and remains to this day, hugely controversial. But we only did it because it was the only thing that worked. We had tried bringing about change by winning the argument, making the case to select more women. But still only men were selected.
“We tried a woman on every shortlist for selection. There was an almighty row about that, but still only men were selected. We tried 50:50 shortlists – again a huge row but still no women selected. So it was only by the radical measure of excluding men altogether from 50% of the seats we hoped to win that we got women elected.”
Morgan’s position is known to be supported by a number of her female colleagues, including Margot James, MP for Stourbridge, a No 10 policy unit adviser and a former party vice-chairman for women.
- The Guardian,