In choosing a new Tory leader and prime minister, promise and potential are not enough – experience and temperament matter too
A new candidate profile in the Telegraph paints a sensitive – and very human – portrait of Conservative Party leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom.
In the wake of the rather ludicrous ‘mothergate’ drama, Allison Pearson interviewed Leadsom and reports:
When Andrea Leadsom came on the phone yesterday afternoon I could tell from her voice that she’d been crying. After what had happened, the last thing she wanted was to talk to another journalist, but she agreed, with great trepidation, to speak to me as we’d planned.
Following what she thought was a friendly, professional meeting with a Times reporter on Friday, she found herself accused in a banner headline of saying that, as a mother she had the “edge” over the childless Theresa May in the race to be prime minister.
[..] When I ask if she would like to apologise to Mrs May, she says: “I’ve already said to Theresa how very sorry I am for any hurt I have caused and how that article said completely the opposite of what I said and believe.”
She refuses to say how the message was conveyed to the Home Secretary, but she admits she has felt “under attack, under enormous pressure. It has been shattering.”
[..] It’s been a brutally hard week which makes you wonder why anyone would go into politics. On the phone, I asked Andrea Leadsom when she last cried. There is a pause. “Twenty minutes ago,” she admits with a wobble. But, don’t worry, it’s not a sob story. She doesn’t believe in those. Meanwhile, she’s off to make a roast chicken stretch for the children’s friends who just turned up unexpectedly. “Lots of roast potatoes.”
Putting on a brave face, making the best of things, and soldiering on, she is much like swathes of Tory voters up and down the land. Will they really ignore her, as all the pundits predict, when it comes to the ballot in September? Not everything has to end in tears.
One feels for Andrea Leadsom, who not only seems like a fundamentally decent human being and with her long previous career outside politics much closer to the ideal of the citizen politician than many of the grey, indistinguishable drones (including Labour leadership challenger Angela Eagle) who have been marinating in the Westminster cesspool for their entire careers.
But it is very concerning that Leadsom has allowed what is essentially a media storm, entirely unconnected with policy or the fate of the country, to affect her so gravely. What we are witnessing is the emotional response of someone who is not used to being vilified in the press and the court of public opinion, and who seems to be shaken to her core at having been misrepresented and criticised.
Such treatment is part of the job description for any British prime minister, particularly in our current polarised age when it is all but guaranteed that any conservative prime minister will immediately be treated like evil incarnate by the socialist half of the country regardless of what they say or do. Such mundane events as being misrepresented by a newspaper or trashed in the press because of a careless choice of phrase ought to be like water off a duck’s back to a seasoned politician. Clearly this is not so for Andrea Leadsom, who has not yet developed the emotional armour to withstand the heat of battle.
Of course, one can argue that this should not be the case; that we cannot simultaneously call for more “normal” people to enter politics and then hold them to the standards of nonchalance in the face of political treachery set by the hardened political class. But sometimes idealism must fall before realpolitik. Even if it is the case that the Westminster media and political class are unnecessarily fratricidal, a British prime minister must still be able to deal with immeasurably complex and fraught issues of domestic security and foreign policy.
This isn’t the Sunday League – with her audacious leadership bid, Andrea Leadsom is asking us to believe that she is capable of playing in the Premier League, an instant promotion spanning several important intermediate steps. A junior minister who has never attended cabinet has a very different sense of what constitutes high stakes than someone who has held one or more of the great offices of state. The latter is almost certain to have wrestled with fiendishly difficult political decisions, the repercussions of which may even be life or death. The ability to do so while maintaining composure and clear thinking is of the utmost importance in a prime minister.
Of course personal temperament is not the only thing that matters. A candidate’s policy beliefs (with attitude toward the coming Brexit negotiations being top of the list right now) also matter enormously, as does their track record. But I get the strong sense that in our justifiable desperation to avoid acknowledging that someone so illiberal and authoritarian as Theresa May is the best of a bad option for leading the country in this difficult time we are sweeping Andrea Leadsom’s naivety, inexperience and rookie temperament under the carpet.
This would not be a mature way to behave. The choice between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom must be made on the basis of who they are today, the policies they advocate and what they have accomplished, and not based on who they may become or whatever else we try to project on to their respective candidacies.
Andrea Leadsom may show future promise – promise which this blog very much hopes to see nurtured and realised in the coming years – but promise alone is not enough.
The ultimate decision over which Conservative leadership candidate would make the best Tory leader and prime minister must be made based on the best evidence available as to a candidate’s ideology, policy platform, track record, personality and temperament.
And much as it pains this blog to admit it, that choice should be Theresa May.
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I fear you may have missed something in all this. Theresa May had overwhelming support among Tory MPs compared with Leadsom. Worse still, those opposed to Leadsom were very hostile – 20 Tory MPs apparently threatened to resign if Leadsom won, no small threat since this could have lost the Tory majority (not very democratic, eh?). Leadsom faced an incredible barrage of hostility from the media about some really quite trivial things, while May faced very little scrutiny of her really appalling career in government, vastly more important issues. May would have struggled even more than Leadsom had the contest been a level playing field.
This amount of hostility from those around you – remember when you are at Westminster these people are all around you, the MPs, the media, might have brought anybody to tears. Remember also that even Thatcher cried as she left office. Ultimately of course you are proved right, in that Leadsom would have had a very difficult time leading the party, but only because of all this irrational hostility. I doubted Leadsom would make a great PM in any event, only that May would prove incomparably worse.
However May has now got to lead the country, and I think we are going to see a growing revulsion against the mainstream “elite” that has ignored our concerns for so long, as May has done on immigration for example. The fact that May backed Remain has left many in the country feeling cheated. Its going to be a lot harder to pretend to lead the country than her pretence of being home secretary under Cameron’s shadow for those years. Its risky trying to predict the future, but I suspect that May will quickly be revealed as a truly appalling “leader” who alienates those around her through her refusal to listen, and control freakery on a scale you haven’t seen before. Of course I may have to do a Paddy Ashdown and eat my hat, but that’s how I see it panning out.
Such prescience. Couldn’t tell us how Labour leadership will pan out while you’re at it could you?
We’re in the shit.
Well it is May now!