Is he right to push a change on which he could be beaten?
Ever since he was elected as leader critics have argued that David Cameron needs to do more than have smart presentation to prove to the electorate that the Tory party has changed. For this, like Tony Blair with Clause Four in the mid-1990s, Cameron has needed an issue on which he can campaign.
Today he is to announce moves that could prove to be highly controversial and on which he could conceivably be beaten – he wants to interfere with the way local Tory parties choose their candidates to make sure that more women are being considered.
For as we saw with the Bromley by-election candidate selection local Tory associations have a huge amount of autonomy on this issue and taking this away is not going to come easily. The culture of the party throughout the country is not one that is ready to accept encroachments that many will see as being pushed for politically correct reasons.
The Tories desperately want to return to power – but would giving up part of local party powers be a price that many would regard as a step too far?
Today’s Cameron plan will strip grassroots members of the final say on who should be their candidate and on the face of it looks like a highly dangerous road for the leader to go down. But Cameron appears determined to move from a system that results in just 10% of his party MPs being female.
To my mind the moves do two things: they will divert the focus from accusations that Cameron is policy-lite and they will set the media agenda as we move into the conference season. The fact that defeat is possible will only add to the interest.
In one sense I don’t think that Cameron is risking much. If he fails to get his changes at least he will have proved to the world – and women voters in particular – that this is a battle that he is willing to fight. Women know how tough it is breaking down the barriers and a defeat at the first hurdle would reinforce his victory when that eventually comes.
Also the longer the argument on female candidates goes on the less he will be challenged on other things. This is the classic Blair device – so for Cameron it could be Win Win.
One of the interesting polling moves since Cameron was elected has been the proportion of women who now say they support the party. In poll after poll the female segment is proving to be much more Tory than the male one. This is only returning to how things used to be. Until Blair’s victory in 1997 women were much more Tory inclined than men.