Stanley Johnson is a former Conservative MEP who contested Teigbridge at the 2005 general election and is father of London Mayor, Boris Johnson. His memoir, Stanley I Presume, was recently published by Fourth Estate/Harper Collins.
The other day my daughter Rachel, the newly-appointed editor of The Lady (she says she always wanted a title), bumped into Michael Howard at a party.
“Why don’t you tell your father to stop applying for seats?” he said.
“Why don’t you?” Rachel replied. “In any case, why shouldn’t he apply?”
“He’s too old.”
My daughter, loyally, bridled at this. “What democratic country regards age as a barrier to election?”
“Ours does” Michael said brusquely. “I’m 68 and I’m stepping down.”
I have a lot of respect for Michael Howard. I fought the Devon seat of Teignbridge at the last election in May 2005 when Michael was our leader. I thought he had a clear and convincing programme: easy for senior citizens to grasp. Taller policemen, lower taxes... that kind of thing. Yet, according to Rachel, Michael sounded pretty "ageist".
My wife, of course, agrees totally with Michael. She is convinced that the only reason I am still throwing my hat in the ring as a candidate is that I can’t face the idea of going shopping in Tesco which is what elderly couples often seem to do. It is true that I hate shopping, but that is not the whole story. I know it is not fashionable to say so nowadays in the light of ExpensesGate etc but for as long as I can remember I have regarded being an MP in the Mother of Parliaments as a supremely honourable calling. When I was ten-years old and still at Prep School I wrote a letter to Winston Churchill congratulating him on his election victory (October 1951) and still have the reply I received from 10 Downing Street!
If there was a "Father of the House" position on the Candidates' List, I suspect I might qualify. I was first put on the list in 1971 by Sir Richard Sharples MP, then a Vice-Chairman of the party. I remember the interview I had with him in the Smith Square office. I had already worked for the World Bank and the UN. Sharples’ main concern seemed to be whether I knew how to speak. “Never turn down an opportunity to speak,” he barked and waved me through. The closest I got at that time to being selected for a winnable seat was in West Dorset in the run-up to the February 1974 election when I was in the final short-list of four. (Jim Spicer won the selection and the election and served with distinction to be succeeded by Oliver Letwin in 1997. Sir Richard Sharples, having been appointed Governor of Bermuda, was unfortunately assassinated in 1973.)
In those days, of course, the local associations were very much in charge. Selection was usually a three-stage process: the long short-list, the shorter short-list and then the final three or four. All candidates, of course, have their own tales to tell. When I was selected in 1979 for the Isle of Wight and Hampshire East Euro-Constituency, the Chairman of the selectors, Jack Bedser, who worked for British Rail in real life, bowled me a fast one. The two other candidates had appeared with their wives to take their places beside them on the stage. I was, as they say, "between marriages" at the time, so there was an empty chair next to me.
“Now, Mr Johnson,” Bedser asked, “if you are selected tonight and then elected, will Mrs Johnson be coming to live with you in the Constituency?”
“Mrs Johnson may very well be coming to live in the constituency” I replied, “but not with me, I’m afraid.”
This sally, I’m convinced, turned the tide in my favour at the selection meeting. At the election itself, Baroness Seear was my Liberal opponent. I got 95,000 votes more than she did, which I regarded as a convincing victory – actually the second largest majority in the UK.
The French have a saying "autres temps, autres moeurs" which can roughly be translated as "other hats, other rings". I am not an expert on the constitution of the Conservative Party but it seems clear to me that the days when the local associations were largely in control have passed. The old three-step process which gave the selectors a chance to get to know, and to assess, the candidates, seems to have been discarded. Two hundred applications have to be reduced in one swell foop to a short-list of six, before any interviewing takes place. Rules are in place to ensure that at least half the short-listed candidates are women and, as we all know, it is now planned that for some seats at least all women shortlists will be introduced.
This latest development which, it seems, has proved controversial among the faithful, or at least some of them, has set me thinking.
What is the fundamental motive behind "positive discrimination" in favour of women? It is surely to seek to redress a situation where the composition of Parliament totally fails to reflect the make-up of the population as a whole. According to the 2001 census, there were 30.2 million women and 28.6 million men.
Idly Googling the 2001 census I note that for the first time ever the over-sixties outnumbered the under-16s. The number of men over 65 and women over 60 was almost 11 million. Today there are five times as many people over 85 as there were in 1951.
It seems to me that if as a Party we are going to go down the route of "positive discrimination" we might consider going one tiny step further. Isn’t there a case for seeking to ensure that the composition of Parliament better reflects not only the UK’s sex distribution but also its age distribution? Might we, experimentally, envisage on occasion an over-60s shortlist to ensure that Parliament benefits from the wisdom that age and experience can bring?
In writing this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of special pleading, so I hasten to add that I personally would be reluctant to enter any contest on such terms. If pace Michael Howard I throw my hat in the ring again, I don’t want any special favours.
I am sure many female candidates at this juncture feel the same way. They want to be able to look Ann Widdecombe in the eye. And yet, and yet... maybe the great minds at CCHQ who think up these things have a point. These are murky waters and I am sure that this debate, whether or not broadened out in the manner I have suggested, still has some way to run.