At the First Time of Asking

Lorraine Fullbrook, Laura Sandys, Jessica Lee. Who these women are, and what they represent for David Cameron and the Conservative Party, could provide for many an uncomfortable truth for the glacial modernisation of the ‘nasty party’.

Sandys is the MP for South Thanet, the pokey-out bit of Kent built around Ramsgate and surrounding villages. Labour-held at Westminster since the Blair landslide in 1997, Sandys took the seat in 2010 with a lead of over 7,600 votes. Even with the whispers and rumours about Nigel Farage’s intended candidature here, the former director and member of (I’m not making this up) the Shopping Hours Reform Council, could have enjoyed another five years of parliamentary career. What made her choose to stand down early? And why has been joined by South Ribble’s Lorraine Fullbrook and Erewash’s Jessica Lee in choosing to only have one term in Parliament?

It has been well documented that women have found Parliament a difficult place to work. The initial burst of ‘Blair’s babes’ included a number who spoke out loudly and proudly against the working hours, the macho culture, and the blatant sexist attitudes of a selection of their male colleagues. In terms of attracting women to a Parliamentary life, Labour has been far more successful than the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, primarily through All Women Shortlists. By the next election, over half of the CLP will be female, a record for Westminster. For the Tories, the doomed A-List championed by David Cameron was supposed to redress the balance by promoting women in target seats; the tactic proved unpopular and barely changed the make-up of the backbenches. A certain number of Conservative women in the recent take-up have certainly not stood in line with the leadership – Nadine Dorries is the Sarah Palin of Westmister, Louise Mensch flit to New York for family reasons, and practising GP Sarah Wollaston has many sharp thorns to stab into the sides of her colleagues. These three could point to their place within the Party as being compromised by the outdated atmosphere of the majority male Palace of Westminster (particularly Wollaston, who has been overlooked for promotion in a marked nose-thumbing for not being all humble and loyal).

Whilst Louise Mensch walked away immediately, Fullbrook, Lee and Sandys will continue in their jobs until a few months before polling day, when they will technically transfer everything over to their replacement candidates. Is there one common reason behind their decisions? Financial, frustrated ambition, realising politics is not for them? Is the possibility of a fixed-term Parliament on the backbenches as opposition MPs persuading current members to re-evaluate their career plans? Or is there something about being amongst the 2010-intake and a woman which has pushed them out?

If it’s the last of these suggestions, what does David Cameron and the Conservative Party aim to do about it? Should the Whips be having quiet words with their backbenchers about the reality of being a woman in the Conservative Party? Certainly the reputation of the Tories and women isn’t so good, not least because Cameron has not reshuffled many female colleagues into top positions around the Cabinet table.

The three constituencies involved are all, coincidentally enough, the kind of important marginal seats which Labour must win to be assured of success in 2015. South Ribble, based around the Lancashire commuter towns of Penwortham and Leyland, is a true bellwether, exactly the kind of seat the Conservatives need to hold to retain a hold in the North West of England. Labour won in 2005 with a lead of 2,000 votes, Lorraine Fullbrook gained it with a lead of 5,000. Not an easy defence for the new candidate.

Thanet is a tougher prospect for Labour, but the threat of Farage puts this seat into dangerous territory. Sandys leaves a tough ask for whoever replaces her. Erewash in Derbyshire can only go two ways, Labour or Conservative, and whilst it was Tory from 1983 to 1997, Jessica Lee gives her successor a lead of just 2,500 votes.

If the Conservatives has a problem with one-term women not feeling confident enough to defend tight majorities, is that because they lack the support from their Party? Have they been left to fight alone or is there a less obvious and complex reason? For David Cameron and his modernisation attempts, he might need to look for some answers and solutions quickly…