Andrea Leadsom’s memoir addresses two juicy what-ifs. Could she have won the 2016 Tory leadership race and, if she had, how would she have done Brexit? Given that Theresa May quit in failure and Boris Johnson in disgrace, she could hardly have been any worse – and now that every man and his dog is running for PM, they’d be wise to listen to what Leadsom has to say about the miserable road ahead.
You may recall that she pulled out of contention six years ago following a car crash interview in which she appeared to say that she’d make a better PM than May because she has children and her opponent does not. That’s not what I said or meant, insists Leadsom – though she admits it was a rookie mistake to conduct such a critical interview in a crowded Milton Keynes coffee bar without staff on hand to control or record it.
But a much bigger reason she threw in the towel was David Cameron. Two weeks for a leadership campaign would’ve been sufficient; Cameron insisted upon nine because he wanted to attend the G20 summit in China. Leadsom believes that had it gone down to the members, she could’ve beaten May, and she’s probably right, because she was a Leaver and May was not. But with the economy teetering on recession, and so many Remainers threatening to resign the whip if Leadsomo won, she fell on her sword for the good of the country.
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A self-serving account? Well, every political memoir is – but this one is so squeaky clean, so charitable even to her enemies, that Leadsom sincerely comes across as the nicest person you’ve never met, the archetype of a gentle Tory who repeatedly missed political opportunities because she was celebrating a birthday in Derbyshire or, to borrow an image from Alan Partridge, judging vegetables in Cromer.
There is no sex. Not even a whiff of cocaine. On her first weekend as business secretary, I was going camping with my sister and our kids at an annual Christian event before dashing off to the north: After a scramble to find a shower and somewhere to plug my hairdryer in she drove to British Steel’s base in Scunthorpe: a truly extraordinary place, with its vast heaps of waste and huge array of derelict buildings. There are few people who could write that they enjoy looking at rubbish and have you believe it, and Leadsom is one of them.
The good lady was elected in 2010 and was working in the Treasury within four years, a minister of state within five. May named her leader of the House, and her account of dealing with Speaker John Bercow is very funny. Whenever he was on his feet in the Commons berating me… I would smile beatifically and then turn my head away from him to ask the whip at my side if he had slept well and enjoyed their breakfast. As Bercow screamed at her to pay attention I would just continue to ‘not hear him’, instead asking my colleague if they preferred tea or coffee. Even at her naughtiest, she is playing mother.
The author gives valuable insight into the stresses of politics, particularly on friendships that – and this is a constant refrain – cannot survive the competition for power. Her rift with Amber Rudd over Brexit obviously cut deep; she found Project Fear ruthless and unpleasant. As for the tykes on her own side, Leadsom advised Vote Leave to drop its high-profile campaign slogan that Britain ‘sends £350 million a week’ to the EU on the grounds that it was misleading (minus the rebate, it’s closer to £267 million). When I raised the issue with Dominic Cummings, he told me: That’s not my problem, I’m here to win the campaign and we’re not changing the wording.
Clever people do stupid things. To return to the 2016 leadership race, we learn that Michael Gove’s dark arts nobbled Boris’s candidature, leaving Leadsom in the final two, the fate of Leave in the hands of a self-confessed amateur. May beat Leadsom on experience and, as you know, turned out to be useless. Today, Leadsom is backing her former supporter, Penny Mordaunt for leader, a healthy lesson in loyalty.
So, what would a Leadsom Brexit have looked like?
First, she would have triggered Article 50 immediately, sending a clear signal that Britain was on its way out and couldn’t be stopped. Second, she would have guaranteed the rights of EU citizens so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for a bargaining chip in the negotiations. In short, she wanted a more decisive yet inclusive Brexit than the one we got – and, thanks to the sheer idiocy of the professionals, very nearly lost.