Conservative party deputy chair James Cleverly has hit out at MPs campaigning for a change in Northern Irish abortion law, accusing Labour of exploiting the issue for party political gain.
Cleverly made his attack despite the fact that at least 13 female Conservative MPs have publicly supported a change to the law in Northern Ireland, which has some of the most restrictive rules on abortion in the world.
A number of senior Conservatives have backed a free vote on Labour MP Stella Creasy’s proposed amendment to the domestic violence bill, which would extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. The consultation on the bill ends on Thursday.
No 10 has made it clear it considers abortion to be a devolved matter, which can only be legislated on by politicians in Northern Ireland.
In a lengthy broadside on Twitter, Cleverly attacked Creasy’s campaign on Wednesday, saying it had “little to do with women’s right to choose, and everything to do with opportunistic party political game playing”.
Cleverly said Labour MPs questioning May’s feminist credentials “should ask themselves ‘am I a proper feminist?’” Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general, suggested over the weekend the issue was “a test” of the prime minister’s feminism.
The MP said that he supported a women’s right to choose, but said that could only come from a restored Northern Ireland executive and a bill or referendum through Stormont.
“You can’t claim to respect NI devolution but then demand that it be ignored because an issue is ‘important’,” he said. “The sensitivity about saying ‘the Republic of Ireland have done it so Northern Ireland should do it too’ cannot be overstated either.”
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, also said she was cautious about setting a precedent for overruling devolved matters.
“If I was a politician in Northern Ireland, I would absolutely 100% vote to change the law. But as someone who operates in a devolved administration, I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood,” she told the FT.
However, some cabinet ministers are known to be sympathetic to calls for change. Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt has already said she favours change in Northern Ireland – calling the Irish referendum result “a hopeful one for Northern Ireland”.
Other senior Tory women backing a change include skills minister Anne Milton, Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health select committee, former women and equalities minister Maria Miller, former education secretary Nicky Morgan and ex-minister Anna Soubry.
Justine Greening has also backed Creasy’s proposal, while former home secretary Amber Rudd is understood to have supported previous attempts to liberalise abortion rights for Northern Irish women. Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom is also said to privately back further reform – but via the restoration of the NI assembly.
One senior Tory MP said there were many more on the backbenches who were not yet speaking out but privately attempting to find a way to allow the government to move on the issue.
“The situation is that there are a lot of Conservatives, including in cabinet, who feel the same way, and are trying to get the PM off the hook and into a place where she can square the circle,” the MP said.
“One option is that the PM just comes out and says it’s clearly untenable that women in Northern Ireland do not have the same rights as their neighbours. Even if she just said that, it would a start.
“Even that position, to say, ‘This is a problem which needs to be resolved,’ would be a big step forwards from saying, ‘Nothing to do with us, guv.’ You can’t hold that line.”
The MP said they believed No 10 were in a “contradictory position, made worse by the DUP agreement” but said that could not be allowed to damage the Conservatives’ reputation on this issue.
“For many of us the real fear is that Conservatism’s compassionate credentials are going to get hammered on the anvil of the DUP agreement,” the MP said.
“What we have to do everything to avoid is looking prepared to do anything to keep the deal with DUP in place, at the expense of throwing the women of Northern Ireland to one side. It becomes absolutely toxic.”
Abortions are only available in Northern Irish hospitals for women whose life or health is in danger; 23 were carried out between 2013-14. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which an abortion can be performed legally. A supreme court judgment on whether abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with international human rights is expected this year.
The DUP, whose 10 MPs the prime minister relies on to prop up her minority government, are an anti-abortion party and have said they oppose any Westminster decision on liberalising abortion while Stormont is suspended.
• This article was amended on 31 May 2018 to correct the number of DUP MPs from 12 to 10.