When Theresa May and I launched Women2Win in November 2005, a couple of weeks before David Cameron was elected leader, the Conservative Parliamentary Party had 9 per cent women MPs – or 91 per cent men to put it another way.   

In the intervening years, the number of Conservative women MPs has grown from 17 to 87. Better, but at one in four, still nowhere near good enough. There is still a long way to go. Even today, people ask me why it matters. It matters because women’s life experiences are different to men’s. Not superior or inferior, but different, and that difference needs to be better reflected round boardroom tables, in Whitehall, in Westminster and round the cabinet table.

Better decisions are taken with a mix of decision makers. Some of the most damaging Covid decisions, including those around schools and children, were taken with few, if any, mothers or women in the room. So this leadership election is an opportunity for those decision-makers, and ultimately our new Party leader, to make it clear that we need more women MPs.  

Party leader after party leader, party chair after party chair, has talked the talk – talked about a commitment to “50 per cent on the candidates list”, but none have walked the walk. They have left the heavy-lifting to Women2Win and the handful of MPs who have been consistently helpful and supportive of this agenda.

It is worth noting that three of the four by-elections we have taken from Labour in recent years have been won by women. (Chloe Smith in 2009, Trudy Harrison in 2017, just a couple of months ahead of the general election, and more recently Jill Mortimer in 2021).   

And then there is the House of Lords. Despite Boris Johnson making two videos confirming a commitment to a 50:50 Parliament, nothing further has happened. Moreover, since he became PM, where he had the opportunity for real change, he has appointed seven women Conservative Peers and 29 men. How is that equality? 

In November 2021, on the anniversary of Nancy Astor taking her seat as the first woman in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson released one of his videos saying: “There is one first that is still long overdue and that is the moment when — for the first time — we finally achieve 50:50 in our parliament… And not just because it is about the oldest and most powerful of all political ideas — the equality of all human beings in dignity and rights — though it certainly is about that. It is because, as I passionately believe, if you give men and women the same opportunities you will solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”

Fine words, but very little actual engagement. So our plea, from Women2Win, to our party, is for the next leader to take this issue seriously. We know that #AskHerToStand works, but only with real commitment and investment from those doing the asking.

The party under new leadership needs to get out, round the country, asking and following up. In my experience many of the women who start the journey into public life are driven by a cause. They have had cancer, a disabled child, an autistic sibling. Whatever their cause, they seem to need that spur to put themselves forward. 

We are also asking for a commitment, a real commitment, to clean up the Parliamentary party. The six Conservative MPs currently embarrassing the party with allegations of sexual misconduct are all men. This is not a coincidence.

The behaviour which has gone on and been tolerated for far too long is no longer acceptable. The public have had enough and so have we.

The leadership election itself shows that with commitment and application, this agenda works. Although still only one quarter of Conservative MPs are women, that two-thirds of the leadership candidates were women (four out of six) – now down to three – shows that they have the ability and the self-confidence to put themselves forward and this in itself is a great leap forward. The candidates are also great role models for girls.

So whilst celebrating our two previous Conservative female prime ministers – with possibly a third to follow in the next few weeks, we also need to be aware that without commitment and leadership to find and encourage a new generation of women leaders in our party, this will be a flash in the pan. That cannot happen.