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Hunt weakens Tory bid to win back women

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Jeremy Hunt’s comments on abortion this week expose the Tories’ real attitude towards women argues Faye Mooney

No matter what their opinion on the matter, I don’t think many within the Conservative Party think that the new Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt’s decision to impart his “personal views” on abortion  on the eve of their conference was particularly well-timed .

The revelation that Hunt believes that the legal limit for termination should be cut by half, from 24 weeks to 12 weeks, has in fact dominated coverage of the conference and may thwart efforts to win back  female votes lost since the party came in to power.

The debate that took place on Monday’s Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4  between presenter Jane Garvey, Conservative MP for Devizes Claire Perry  and  former political editor of the Observer Gaby Hinsliff, demonstrated how keen the party is to move the debate away from Hunt’s comments on abortion.

Perry’s attempts to quickly move the discussion on to other policy areas were telling,  and she even went so far as to suggest that the focus on the abortion issue is ‘deeply, frankly, patronising and insulting’, in response to Jane’s point that  The Royal College of Gynaecologists has stated that Hunt’s comments were ‘insulting to women’.

Perry’s attempts to defend Jeremy Hunt’s right to hold ‘personal views’, and the Tory record on women, show the Conservative party is as disconnected from the ideas and needs of women as the Minister for Health’s comments suggest.

“[With regard to] Tories and Women… in the last year I have yet to meet any woman who thinks it is right to leave the last governments debt for our kids to pay off, and I have met hundreds of women who have benefitted from being taken out of tax…”. We’ll assume that you haven’t met any of the women taken out of their homes, or who have lost their jobs, or their Incapacity Benefit, then, Claire.

And I’m not sure how Women’s Hour listeners, Tory or not, will take to attempts from Perry and Hinsliff to argue that there is no such thing as the ‘women’s vote’ – as Jane Garvey rightly pointed out – the ‘women’s vote’ is historically a relative novelty. Have we really lost our right to be classed as a voting group less than 100 years after gaining the vote at all?

It appears, then, that Jeremy Hunt, who is, incidentally, keeping a low-profile at Conference, may have blown the lid off the Party’s attempts to convince us that the Tories have women’s interests at heart, or indeed anyone’s interests except their own, forcing other members of the party to fall head-first in to garbled and unconvincing attempts to prove otherwise.

Critically, what Hunt has managed to do, as indeed has Perry, is emphasise the pervasive sense that policy is being dictated by a cabinet which is overwhelmingly white, male, middle class and out of touch with the electorate.

The Conference has little chance of dispelling this perception as Cam & Co. announce a series of policies which will quite evidently hit women hardest, again, and the fringe groups generated even more right-wing policies which directly threaten the rights of women.

In this sense, we can almost be grateful to dear Jeremy Hunt.

His ill-thought out comments have weakened the Conservative Party’s ability to use Conference rhetoric to disguise further attacks on the rights, roles and welfare of women. Attempts to do so appear hollow and meaningless. This is, of course not to condone his words, as they are deeply concerning, but to at least see a silver lining.

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