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Tory Women Hit Out At "Boys Club" Candidate Selection

Tory party chairman Richard Holden (Alamy)

7 min read

Female Tory candidates claim they lost out in the last-minute rush to fill vacancies, alleging Rishi Sunak’s allies oversaw a "jobs for the boys" operation.

The party was working under emergency rules to select candidates for 160 seats nationwide in preparation for the 4 July General Election. The process saw local associations offered a shortlist drawn up by Conservative Campaign Headquarters of three or, in the last hours before the candidates list closed, have a single person put forward by the party. The deadline was 4pm Friday.

Inside Downing Street were James Forsyth, Sunak's political secretary, and Rupert Yorke, No 10 deputy chief of staff, who PoliticsHome understands oversaw a "pre sift" of which individuals were allowed to go where in the selection process.

“The boys' club is alive and well. If they don’t like you, you don’t even make it into the mix before the candidates committee,” said one woman who lost out on a selection.

From there, CCHQ’s candidates committee – a group of eight people, three of whom PoliticsHome has been told are women – decided on the formal shortlist.

Emily Sheffield, who was searching for a seat and happens to be the Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s sister-in-law, has been publicly critical of the process, questioning on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter: “Where are the women deciding on who goes on these lists?”

Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, took it a step further, posting that “the number of female candidates getting through and into seats is so low it’s like back to the 1950s” and using the hashtag #jobsfortheboys.

A number of Conservative women have expressed the same sentiment, albeit anonymously, worried about the response from the party.

Why should women be pushed to volunteer for unwinnable seats?

In the last Parliament, the Conservatives had the lowest proportion of female MPs at just 25 per cent, compared to just over half of Labour MPs (52 per cent) being women at the last general election – and there are fears among Tory women that it could get worse.

Greg Hands, as party chair last September, told ConservativeHome half of all the Conservative party's candidates in the next election should be women.

However, Women2Win, the Tory campaign group set up by former prime minister Theresa May and Baroness Anne Jenkin to encourage women into politics, expects around 30 per cent of Conservative candidates to be women going into this election, PoliticsHome understands. A small number of selections were yet to be completed at the time of writing. Meanwhile, nearly half (47 per cent) of Labour's candidates are women.

One Tory woman, who was placed in the final three of a selection, said: “There are a lot of people who feel the same way. What you have ended up with is a lot of male spads (special advisers) or men with connections to No 10 getting into finals or safer shortlists. It has been brutal.”

Another claims that “it seemed some people were allowed to join the candidates list at the last minute, which strikes me as not especially fair”.

One woman, who missed out on selection, told PoliticsHome: “Lads from No 10 and displaced male MPs have done quite nicely out of the new rules. Why should women be pushed to volunteer for unwinnables when the men stroll into safe seat shortlists?”

Former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries has publicly criticised the Tory party's candidate selection process (Alamy)

Her main complaint is that women were encouraged to stand in Conservative "unwinnable seats", while "displaced" male MPs – affected by boundary changes or on "chicken runs" to safer seats – and men working in No10 were directed on a route to more secure seats.

There is a feeling that as the deadline for selection approached, CCHQ tried to correct the lagging numbers last minute by placing women in no-hopers.

“Women haven’t got a look in towards the safer seats that were opened up but with worries that they wouldn’t fill all the vacancies women were being called up to go to the unwinnables,” one female Tory figure said, suggesting that next time candidate selection comes round a lot of women won’t put themselves forward again as they feel they’ve been treated so badly this time.

Frustration has been reflected back onto Women2Win, with claims that women were pushed to run in Labour-dominated constituencies like Hackney North and Stoke Newington in north London, or Liverpool Riverside, and “being shuffled into those unwinnables”.

Meanwhile in Stratford-on-Avon, former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi’s old seat which saw a 19,972 majority in 2019, former MP Chris Clarkson was selected after last year announcing he wouldn’t fight his 2019 seat Heywood and Middleton with a 663 majority. The shortlist was Clarkson, No 10’s Declan Lyons and a local woman.

The Conservative group leader at Stratford-on-Avon District Council has also accused the party of overlooking women in the selection process.

Sarah Whalley-Hoggins told the BBC: “I’m appalled by how women candidates and potential candidates have been treated throughout this process and throughout the country. The best female candidates have been kept away from shortlists.

“I’d be interested to know how many women were involved in allocating candidates to the seats. High-calibre candidates have been overlooked for a reason. I’m tired of women being treated so shabbily.”

They’re jealous but it's part of politics and politics is brutal

As one female former Tory MP told PoliticsHome: “The boys are trying to muck about.”

However, another female Tory figure said attempts to set up a selection or parachute a candidate do not always work in favour of the men. They used of the example of South Northamptonshire, claiming that the party's high command wanted Festus Akinbusoye to be the candidate, but in the end it was Sarah Bool who secured the candidacy.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak campaigning in Redcar (Alamy)

Despite criticisms of the emergency rules allowing for parachuting men, the same woman said it helps get impressive women straight to the final shortlist that local politics – “where there are almost no women” – would sometimes get in the way of.

She claimed the party's "best women" are based in London, and that the rules used by the party to select candidates at this General Election make it easier for them to reach final shortlists in constituencies where they are not from. "If the local bloke, our Bob or our Jack, who is usually something on the council, gets the chance, he can stuff the room and get the bums on seats that work for him," she said.

This "jobs for the boys" approach is nothing new, she says, “you see men trying to help their friends every year – in 2019 it was Dougie Smith” but “often it does not work for them”.

For example, she says, “I'm sure that (Michael) Gove lobbied for Henry Newman (his spad) to get into the Bexhill and Battle final” though he was unsuccessful, missing out to former MP Dr Kieran Mullan who was elected in 2019 for Crewe and Nantwich with a smaller 8,508 majority.

One of the problems more generally is that, as another female former Tory MP told PoliticsHome, “a lot of women don’t really want to stand this time”.

They report that with the abuse directed towards female candidates especially, and the General Election coming at short notice, there are women who should be applying for selection that aren’t: “A lot of women will have thought it's too late. Boys never think that. The boys always think that they deserve it, and that they're entitled to it.”

One senior Tory woman does not have much sympathy though: “Mostly the ones that complain are not the most talented.”

She suggests that these people won’t last long in Westminster if they hold grudges.

“People ask, fairly: ‘Why not me?’ They’re jealous but it's part of politics and politics is brutal.”

A Conservative party spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “The Conservative party is committed to building a party that reflects the whole country. Associations across the country have had the opportunity to select candidates, following our selection process, that best reflect their constituency.”

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