David Cameron has just given evidence to to the Speaker's Conference on making Parliament more representative of the nation. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg separately gave evidence, with all three leaders being challenged about what they are doing to improve the proportions of people likely to be elected to Parliament who are women, LGBT, disabled, or from an ethnic minority.
The words that deserve to make the headlines are these from David Cameron:
"From January, we move to what we call our by-election procedure, which is that if any MP stands down either shortly before that date or after that date, the central party provides the shortlist to the association and it's my intention that if we continue as we are, that some of those shortlists will indeed be all-women shortlists to help us boost the number of Conservative women MPs and also to recognise the fact that although about 29% of our candidates are women, 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, so that's my current intention."
We feared this would happen. David Cameron may be using the word "consider" now but we suspect that CCHQ has every intention of routinely using all-women shortlists from the new year. Given that the reports of Thomas Legg and Christopher Kelly may produce many more MP retirements this is far from an academic reform.
It is clear that the half-women shortlists are not working but it's obvious why. This quote is typical from ConHome feedback from Associations involved in using them:
"We have to have the same number of women on the shortlist even if three or four times as many men apply. To be one of the shortlisted men you have to be very special. To be one of the shortlisted women you do not. Every Association suspects that the members of gender-balanced shortlists are not of equal talent."
The fact is that Associations are adopting women in rough proportion to the number of women on the candidates list. There are many more men on the candidates list and it is not particularly surprising therefore that more men are being selected.
All women shortlists from January would be an unacceptable departure from Conservative concepts of meritocracy and trusting people. There are many good women on the candidates list and Associations would therefore have a choice of good candidates if all women shortlists are imposed... but there are many good men too. It would be unfair and unmeritocratic for Associations to be denied to choose male candidates who have given so much to the Conservative Party over the years and have great talents to offer the country in the future. Quite simply Associations may not be able to choose the best persons for their Association.
All women shortlists would also be anti-localist. Why should we believe the Tory leadership on their promises to localise power if - yet again - they centralise power over candidate selection?
What would come next? All ethnic minority shortlists? All Muslim shortlists? If the party is becoming obsssed with quotas there is no logical or high principled reason why the answer to those questions would be "no".
All women shortlists are fundamentally unConservative and they have no place in a party pledged to meritocracy and localism.
Tim Montgomerie and Jonathan Isaby