THE Scottish LibDems have been criticised after abandoning their commitment to use all-women shortlists in their target seats at the general election.

The party is tomorrow expected to select former MSP Jamie Stone as the candidate in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

Party insiders believe only Gordonstoun-educated Mr Stone has the local profile to overturn the 3,844-vote majority won by the SNP’s Dr Paul Monaghan in 2015.

However his selection would be at odds with a LibDem drive to see more women elected.

Embarrassed by the effective deselection of the party’s only female MSP, Alison McInnes, in 2015, party leader Willie Rennie launched a high-profile effort to improve gender balance.

In February 2016, the party’s conference passed a motion stating the candidates for the party’s five most winnable vacant seats in the 2020 general election would go to women.

Mr Rennie said the decision sent “a powerful message that we are changing”, adding: “This represents a big shift and will open up opportunities for new women candidates”.

When Theresa May called a snap election, Mr Rennie confirmed the policy would still apply.

However only four of the top five seats are now guaranteed to be contested by women: Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire; Christine Jardine in Edinburgh West; Elizabeth Riches in North East Fife and Jean Davis in Ross, Skye & Lochaber.

Mr Stone, 62, has a long association with the Caithness constituency, having held the equivalent Holyrood seat between 1999 and 2011 before stepping down for family reasons.

He is also a councillor Tain and Easter Ross on Highland council, and stood in Caithness for Holyrood last year, losing to SNP newcomer Gail Ross.

The LibDems are expected to focus ruthlessly on Dr Monaghan’s character in the election.

One of the most controversial SNP MPs, he has called the Union Flag the “butcher's apron”, a “rag” for “bigots, zealots and fantasists” and “unfit to wipe the floor of a pigsty”.

He called the Royal Family an “obscenity”, Prince Harry a “moron”, the Duchess of Cambridge “Mrs Kate Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, unemployed of London” and the Queen a benefits “claimant”.

He has also been accused of peddling conspiracy theories about the Yes side’s defeat in the 2014 independence referendum, claiming there was a “shadow over the result”, and claimed the pro-Putin outlets RT and Sputnik were “impartial” and “robust”.

Professor Kirstein Rummery, who is standing in Stirling for the Women’s Equality Party, said the LibDems’ commitment to gender balance appeared skin-deep.

“They should have stuck to their guns. This just rewards people who are already in the system.

“It makes me question their commitment to fairness, equality and getting the best people in.

“Whatever reasons they’re using to put him forward rather than a woman are more important to them that putting forward a woman. "They’re only committed to it until push comes to shove and then they drop it. That’s the problem. That’s why we have too few women in politics.”

Mr Stone refused to comment on an “internal party matter”.

A Scottish LibDem spokesman said: “The conference passed a motion for the 2020 general election and identified a number of associated steps to increase the number of women candidates.

“We have been successful for four of the five seats and considering the time scale that was a significant achievement. However it was not possible for Caithness.”