11 July 2016

Andrea Leadsom is the Tory Party’s anti-Corbyn


Andrea Leadsom was out of her depth. A resourceful woman with a successful (but, as the country discovered, not outstanding) career in the City and six years’ experience as an MP, she was virtually unheard of even in political circles until a month ago. She was propelled into the spotlight by the Vote Leave campaign, and her performance in the ITV debate on the referendum secured her a spot as one of the Tory Party’s Brexit icons.

But, as has become readily apparent, she was never cut out to be Prime Minister. Nor is it even clear that is what she wanted.

Three weeks ago, when Boris Johnson look set to put on the Tory crown, all Leadsom was after was a cabinet position. She only decided to run herself when the Boris campaign failed to promise her one, raising her profile by entering the race. Whether this gaffe on the part of Boris was really what motivated Michael Gove to stab his friend and erstwhile ally in the back and run himself, or whether it was just a convenient excuse, suddenly Gove was in the race and Boris wasn’t. But Gove’s popularity ratings couldn’t survive this latest betrayal, and the anti-EU Tories needed someone to rally around. Faced with the Remainers Theresa May and Stephen Crabb, and the outdated Liam Fox, Andrea was all they had left.

What happened next must have been as much of a shock for her as it was for the country. Leadsom was hailed as the new Margaret Thatcher, the only candidate (we were told) who could be relied upon to take Britain out of the EU. She was endorsed by UKIP heavyweights Nigel Farage and Arron Banks. But aside from her Brexit views, she was essentially a clean slate onto which supporters could project whatever they wanted – family values, liberalism, banking regulation, free-market principles, nationalism, a global outlook – regardless of contradiction.

And, let’s not forget, she was a mother.

Andrea Leadsom herself couldn’t forget it. She clearly knew mentioning her own motherhood in contrast to Theresa May’s childlessness would not play well, not least because May has previously spoken about her sadness at not having children. Whether or not Leadsom was led into a trap by Times journalism Rachel Sylvester is irrelevant – she knew what she was not supposed to say, and she said it anyway:

“I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.”

What followed has been described by Leadsom supporters as “black ops”, “denigration”, “a smear campaign”, and “abuse”. In actual fact, it was the kind of media scrutiny and public criticism that senior politicians endure every day. Leadsom was held to the same merciless standards as David Cameron, Theresa May, Michael Gove and George Osborne, to name but a few, and she realised she couldn’t handle it. This is nothing for her to apologise for – 24/7 media coverage is brutal and Leadsom had no time to acclimatise to it. But, as Iain Martin pointed out, “Leadsom’s dignified statement is a recognition that if she could not weather ten days of campaigning under the media glare then running the UK and delivering Brexit were going to be a bit of a stretch.‎”

It is not patronising to thank and admire Andrea Leadsom for realising she was out of her depth and withdrawing her candidacy. As the Tory leadership battle has been raging, the Labour Party has been struggling to rid itself of its own Leadsom-figure, a character so wholly unsuited to lead a national party that 74 percent of his MPs have no confidence in him.

To Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, he is the One True Leader, simultaneously representing the hard-left socialism of the 70s and a new dawn of radical social liberalism which has no need of coherent policies. Corbyn is lauded by eco-warriors who seem blissfully unaware of his proposals to reopen environmentally catastrophic coal mines. Students and unemployed graduates adore him while he is propped up by unions which fight any progress that could result in new jobs. And he has somehow earned a reputation for feminism and social justice, despite appointing a front bench of predominantly white men (most of whom have resigned over the past weeks).

Like Andrea Leadsom, the fact that Corbyn lacked cabinet experience and is divisive even within his own party seems of no concern to his ardent supporters. But Leadsom, to her credit, had the self-awareness and decency to quit without destroying her party first. She has withdrawn with enough of her reputation intact that she will likely make a fine minister in Theresa May’s cabinet (maybe as Secretary for Children and Families), and could even run again in the next race. After three weeks of turbulence, the Conservatives are uniting around their new leader, while Labour MPs wage a shambolic civil war against theirs.

The Tories should be grateful Andrea Leadsom has spared them such a fate.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.