There are now 68 female MPs in the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, up from 49 in 2010. All were selected, and then won their seats, on merit. Women2Win (W2W) was set up ten years ago, when we had just 17 female MPs, to help encourage, support and mentor Conservative women into the House of Commons.
This has been a team effort. The hard yards to get to this point have been exerted by the Conservative Women’s Organisation, as well as the ground-breaking support provided by Sarah Newton MP and Carolyn Chisholm, co-chairs in charge of candidates at CCHQ during the last parliament. In addition, female cabinet ministers, like Theresa May and Nicky Morgan, have played a big part as role models for the candidates and new MPs.
Together, we helped ensure that, on election night, it was the new Conservative women who provided the real highlights: Balls, Cable and Reckless were all defeated by 3 new female Conservative MPs.
Women2Win has played a small but important role in supporting the 2015 female candidates in a variety of ways. Whether it was weekly training sessions for candidates from 2012-2015, one-on-one mentoring, or feisty mock hustings and financial support for female candidates’ campaigns, the purpose is the same: to have a House of Commons that is more representative of modern Britain, and one that better reflects the Conservative party.
The assistance has been extensive. Over 30 MPs and coaches have volunteered to serve on mock selection panels, grilling would-be candidates. They have been critical friends to the candidates’ speeches and have assessed the quality and delivery of their answers to oral questions. Many candidates were also then given individual W2W mentors; and thanks are due to the mainly male mentor MPs who helped and worked with their respective candidates to help improve performance and guide them through the process.
We held large mock selections at various party conferences, and invited all the female candidates along. There they were able to watch how some of the young female MPs from the 2010 intake – including Claire Perry, Harriett Baldwin and Therese Coffey – navigated their way through the tough questioning from long-time supporter Tim Montgomerie, in his role as chair of the mock selection panel. The purpose was simple. The candidates could observe and study how these female MPs dealt with the tough questions and the inevitable cross examination that they themselves would shortly face as candidates.
The aim of this process is not to change the candidates, but to make them the best that they can be. W2W gives the candidates an opportunity to watch, listen and learn. They are questioned, grilled, assessed, videoed, and taken through each speech, each performance. We act as a supportive but critical friend. Our aim is to get them to address any frailties and focus on their strengths. We then mentor them so that they are the best that they can be when it comes to a selection, a hustings, or any public meeting or event. In the real world this continuous professional development is normal. In business, everyone accepts that they are always capable of improvement.
During the election campaign itself the W2W team did three things. Firstly, we provided financial support to every female candidate who required assistance. The sums provided were not vast but they went a long way, and this was thanks to our W2W donors, who share and support our vision for more female MPs.
Secondly, we held a well-attended pre-election mock hustings with the help of MPs Charlotte Leslie and Stephen O’Brien: Tim Montgomerie once again took the role of chair superbly.
Finally, we also travelled hundreds of miles supporting and campaigning in marginal seats, but also didn’t forget to help some outstanding MPs like Amber Rudd and Chloe Smith, who were under pressure from Labour, with small majorities.
We started en masse in Norwich, as part of Chloe Smith’s Easter Monday action day; there were then trips to help many other candidates including Rebecca Harris in Castle Point, Amber Rudd in Hastings and Maria Caulfield in Lewes. There were also multiple other visits further north, where we helped winning female MPs in Erewash, Cannock Chase, and, of course, in Morley in Yorkshire. W2W were also there to help defeat UKIP in Rochester, not that Kelly Tolhurst needed much assistance! She handed a 7,133 vote thrashing to Mark Reckless.
Some of the support we gave in London was sadly in vain, as we lost great MPs like Angie Bray and Mary Macleod, but there were successes as well. If you want giant-slayers of Liberal Democrats then you need look no further than Dr. Tania Mathias, who stormed home in Twickenham, leading to emotional scenes as Vince Cable saw his 12,000 majority slip away. Tania is a doctor in the local NHS, and a local councillor. W2W first campaigned with Tania in the driving rain on 3rd January 2015, as Sky News tagged along, trying to see if the reports of Tania’s drive to win Twickenham were likely to be true. Some may have doubted her ability to beat Vince, but we, and more importantly, she, did not; after January we helped her with hustings prep, financial assistance and a further visit again early in the election, to help the momentum swing her way.
But there is no doubt which was the biggest prize to fall on election night: no assessment of the new intake is complete without reference to Andrea Jenkyns, the Yorkshire businesswoman, music teacher and new MP for Morley and Outwood. To defeat Balls against the odds takes hard work, determination and real guts. Andrea received a lot of help from a lot of quarters over the two long years of her campaign to oust Ed Balls, but ultimately she was the individual who got the job done under great pressure.
One thing is for sure: the Conservative party does not lack female talent. This new 2015 intake is no exception; they are selected on merit, and capable of beating the best, from Balls to Cable. The campaign to ensure we have more female Conservative MPs continues. We need to work to attract more women to consider politics as a career, and to encourage them to get on to the candidates list when it re-opens. We now have a very large number of female candidates coming through, many of whom are battle-hardened after unsuccessful campaigns in the 2015 election. There is the talent there to get a significant increase in the number of female Conservative MPs in the not too distant future.
First published in ConservativeHome.