For traditional Tory women, a speech by Michael Heseltine was the closest they ever got to oral sex

I feel about as sorry for Mary Archer as I do for Hillary Clinton and Christine Hamilton - that is, not a bit. All the rubbish that has been spouted about these women standing by their men is thoroughly misguided. These women have not stood by their men - they are up to their necks in it with their men. They are not simply propping up their weak menfolk, who have a penchant for sleazy sex and backhanders about which these passive little wives knew nothing. They are protecting their interests.

Mary Archer is about as delicate as Ann Widdecombe. Just because some loopy old judge once had a crush on her and called her "fragrant" we don't have to buy the whole gift-set. She is as hard as nails and as thick-skinned as her lying spouse. She and Jeffrey have for a long time led quite separate lives, as have the Clintons. This is fine, understandable even, and far more acceptable to me than the lovey-dovey pictures we get of the wives as little more than stern matriarchs who first tick off, and then forgive, their naughty little boys.

Yet part of the reason that we see Mary Archer as some sort of flower is that we do not know how to classify these Tory women anymore. They truly are an endangered species. After the glorious back-to-basics period where, one by one, they had to smile their Prozac smiles to the press as their husbands were revealed as adulterers, they usually faded into the background and quietly got divorced.

Indeed, many women have quietly divorced themselves from the Tory party. This should worry even some of the myopic dinosaurs at the top. The traditional Tory woman, the kind of woman for whom a speech by Michael Heseltine was the nearest she ever got to oral sex, is a dying breed and there is no one to replace her.

What can the Tory party actively offer young, ambitious and independent women these days? While a quarter of Labour MPs are female, thanks to the controversial quota system, we see what happens when we wait for things to improve in their own meritocratic and natural way: zilch. Only 8 per cent of Tory MPs are female. Tessa Keswick has been brave to point this out to her own party in a Centre for Policy Studies document. She is pushing for urgent change and argues that the only way to achieve this is through what the Tories hate most - positive discrimination.

Yet as important as it is for them to get some women on to their front benches, the Tories' biggest problem is that their rhetoric does not address the modern woman as anything other than subservient wife and mother. The idea of the economically independent young woman who may choose not to marry, who may choose not to have children, is anathema to them. The Conservatives are strangely ignorant of what they themselves helped produce through their economic liberalisation. Getting more women into the workforce didn't only mean more cheap and flexible labour; it also meant that women have been at the very forefront of these rapid social changes.

Somehow the Tories, and it has to be said some parts of new Labour, continue to blame women for these changes, rather than seeing them as struggling to cope with them. Things have changed so quickly that the past is definitely another country - one from which Tory women are now exiled. Even feisty Teresa Gorman is giving up the ghost.

What Tory women are we to look to now - the aromatic Virginia Bottomley for mayor of London? The flirtatious (yes she is) Ms Widdecombe? The rarely glimpsed Mrs Portillo or the lovely Ffion, who, though a bright young thing, is spoken of as little more than a guarantor of Hague's heterosexuality. Even in the family-values stakes, this a poor show, far outstripped by the ability of the Blair project to regenerate itself literally instead of having a mid-life crisis.

One would have thought that a man of Hague's generation would have seen the need to surround himself with some enterprising young women, instead of being beholden to men nearly twice his age. Yet, as he showed at the Tory conference this year, he feels no obligation to have even a few women on the platform. And because of his reluctance to look at selection procedures for new candidates, women are getting through only in the unwinnable seats, if at all.

Tories always hold up Margaret Thatcher as an example of the lack of discrimination towards women in their party. Yet Thatcher pulled up the ladder behind her and, since she went, the party has not modernised itself in this respect at all. It still looks only backwards. What does it really have to say to today's single mothers, except you should not be one? What does it have to say about sex education, except that teenagers shouldn't have sex? What does it say to the young mother who wants to set up a business, except get back in the kitchen?

Male commentators continually tell us that the crucial issue for the Tories is Europe. Yet normal people glaze over whenever the euro is mentioned. If the Tories are to reinvent themselves, it will depend on their formulating a set of polices around family life in the 21st century. Their heartland of Middle England currently occupied by new Labour is full of families who have experienced divorce, stepchildren, abortion and homosexuality. The Tories can no longer afford to speak of such things as aberrations that only happen to other people.

This is why the Tories need women not merely to stand by them, but to drag them kicking and screaming into the future so that they understand it has already arrived. If they don't, these lost boys stand to lose even more than they already have.

The writer is a columnist on the "Mail on Sunday"

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