Andrea Leadsom steps aside from the Tory leadership race leaving the way for Theresa May to become Prime Minister. Josh Lambkin looks at the extent to which one particular headline may have caused this shift in the political landscape.
Andrea Leadsom, one of two candidates vying to be the next Prime Minister of the UK, yesterday dropped out of the contest following a chain of events set in motion by an interview she gave to The Times. It is rare for a single piece of media coverage to have such an impact but, as Leadsom has discovered to her chagrin, effective engagement with the media is an indispensible skill for anyone seeking high office.
Rachel Sylvester, one of the most respected political journalists in Westminster, interviewed Leadsom about her ambitions to become Prime Minister. In response to a question from Sylvester about whether she ‘felt like a mum in politics’, Leadsom responded:
‘Yes. I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so 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 that 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.’
The next day, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Times splashed ‘Being a mother gives me edge on May — Leadsom’. Leadsom and her supporters immediately responded with fury and outrage whilst her critics, including those within the party, responded with calls for her to drop out from the race.
Why is it important?
The jury is still out over whether Leadsom gave this statement out of malice or naivety. The interview she gave to the Telegraph the following Monday and subsequent televised apology indicate (to me at least) that this was a result of sheer inexperience. The episode is yet another illustration of how PR can go badly wrong in politics. An interview with The Times right at the start of the short campaign should have been a golden opportunity for Leadsom to get on the front foot and make her pitch to the party membership. Tough questions, particularly around her prominent views on the family, were almost certainly going to feature and she should have been prepared.
But being poorly prepared for an interview is not unprecedented in Westminster; what made the situation worse was her subsequent reaction. Her accusation of ‘gutter’ tactics betrayed a deep misunderstanding of the media and how interviews work on a basic level. The situation was further compounded when The Times released the audio tape and transcript of the meeting supporting the headline unequivocally. Leadsom’s lack of judgement and the futility of her position became immediately clear.
What’s the reaction been?
The reaction to this story has been reflective of the divide revealed by the recent EU referendum. Leadsom’s supporters cried foul, with one even photo-shopping a fake tweet from The Times supposedly apologising for the inaccuracy of the article. Whilst this may have been a small minority of people, it serves as a timely reminder that anti-establishment, anti-mainstream media, post-truth politics is a growing phenomenon across the political spectrum.
The reaction from the parliamentary Conservative Party was crucial. High-profile MPs like Alan Duncan, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry immediately responded with calls for Leadsom to step down from the leadership race. This pressure added to the growing narrative that Leadsom was an ‘amateur’ and not up to the job of Prime Minister. One might expect this criticism from the commentariat, but when it comes from the party you are hoping to lead, it is difficult to overcome.
Leadsom’s decision to step down on Monday (and therefore May’s coronation as Prime Minister) was a direct result of the criticism she had provoked through the interview with The Times. However, as James Forsyth (Political Editor, The Spectator) has already noted, Leadsom’s decision to pull out at this early stage may have saved her future political career – she may well still get a position in Theresa May’s cabinet.
The episode is also a testament to the old adage that the Tory Party is, above all else, driven by a desire to govern. By contrast to Labour, who are in the midst of a fierce and protracted battle over the direction of the party, the Conservative Party has swiftly (and brutally) brought an end to its leadership contest.
Being a mother gives me edge on May — Leadsom – The Times
Political correspondents and lobby journalists have had a frantic few weeks since the referendum result was decided on the 23rd of June. With the Prime Minister now decided, attention is now likely to shift onto the composition of Theresa May’s cabinet and, of course, the travails of the Labour Party as they attempt to replace their leader.
For Leadsom, there is the possibility of a ministerial position on May’s government but let’s hope she enrols on some media training before her next interview – Pagefield Academy’s doors are always open!