Britain's Conservatives clean house, bring in women

Hoping to build on European Parliament 'triumph,' opposition puts

Women are continuing their long but steady march toward equality in British politics.

In a bid to make his lagging party more appealing to women voters, opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague has removed three "old guard" males from his shadow cabinet - unofficial counterparts to the government's Cabinet - and replaced them with younger, able females.

The June 15 reshuffle was described as "ruthless" by some political analysts. One of the casualties was Mr. Hague's deputy, Peter Lilley.

In the May 1997 general election that brought Prime Minister Tony Blair to power, 101 female Labour members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to the 659-seat House of Commons - five times the number Conservatives brought in. Mr. Blair went on to appoint five women to senior positions, including Mo Mowlam as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

The next British general election isn't due for two years, but Hague is seeking to build on momentum a week after Conservatives won more seats than the ruling party in elections to the European Parliament - a result he has called "a triumph."

Hague has also been careful to ensure that the women appointees are all "Euroskeptics" - opposed to Britain joining the euro, the single European currency.

Most prominent among the new Conservative female frontbenchers is Ann Widdecombe, who is vocally anti-abortion, supports capital punishment, and advocates tough rules for prison inmates. Ms. Widdecombe called her appointment as shadow home secretary her "dream job." She is joined by Angela Browning as shadow trade secretary and Theresa May, who gets the sensitive post of shadow education secretary after having been an MP for only two years.

Political analyst Peter Riddell calls the telegenic Ms. May's rapid rise "astonishing." He describes her as being "rather in the mold of the young Margaret Thatcher."

Mrs. (now Baroness) Thatcher broke through the glass ceiling of British politics when she was elected prime minister in 1979. In office, however, she did little to encourage women in politics.

Conservative sources concede that the party has been much slower than Labour to push able women into the political mainstream. One Hague adviser says: "William has realized that if we are to rebuild our party at constituency level, women must be drawn in." He adds: "Blair's popularity among voters is partly explained by his reputation as being sensitive to the views of women."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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