Five days after the EU referendum, I sat opposite Andrea Leadsom in the Woman’s Hour studio and felt, strongly, that this was someone who would insist on her guests using coasters.
Such snap judgements might seem flippant but in politics they are crucial. Most voters pay little attention to Westminster outside of election season (a YouGov survey in 2013 found that 27 per cent of people could not identify the Chancellor), and first impressions matter.
The aura around the 53-year-old Leadsom is that of a golf club ladies’ captain. Educated at Tonbridge Grammar School in Kent and Warwick University, she was on the Tory “A-list” and was first elected in South Northamptonshire in 2010. Although only a minister of state (in the Department of Energy and Climate Change), she represented the Leave campaign in two set-piece TV debates and did so well that she attracted the support of Brexiteers looking for a candidate who had never been on holiday with David Cameron, nor been a member of the Bullingdon Club.
Unlike in her polished debate performances, Leadsom gave off a brittle, wounded hauteur on Woman’s Hour that seemed odd for someone whose side had just won. “You should hear yourselves,” she admonished us when Boris Johnson’s motives were questioned.
Then again, she is in an unusual situation: she has become the champion of the True Brexiteers, despite having said as recently as 2013 that leaving the EU “would be a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty”. News of these remarks broke in the Mail on Sunday on 3 July, raising two intriguing possibilities: first, Leadsom’s political “journey” (her word) may have been driven by tactical calculations; second, David Cameron’s Remain campaign pulled its punches. Why did her U-turn not become public before the vote? Could it be that the Prime Minister, buoyed by polls that showed Remain to be well ahead, wanted to minimise the damage done to fellow Conservatives so that he could reunite the party afterwards?
Whatever Leadsom’s views in 2013, she is now the darling of hardcore Eurosceptics and came second behind Theresa May in the first vote by Tory MPs.
To win, Leadsom needs to look as though she is ready to play in the big leagues and to show that she has something to offer Remainers as well as her natural supporters. So far, it’s not going well. Her launch on 4 July, which trumpeted the possibility of “fresh leadership”, was attended by Stewart Jackson and Bill Cash – Tory MPs whom even their colleagues cross corridors to avoid – and the least successful Conservative leader of recent times, Iain Duncan Smith.
Also present were figures from Leave.EU, the unofficial pro-Brexit organisation that was bankrolled by the Ukip donor Arron Banks, who has suggested that he could fund Leadsom’s campaign. Some fear Ukip entryism: on 3 July, appearing on The Andrew Marr Show, she refused to rule out giving some kind of role to Nigel Farage. “I will only have my key negotiating team from the government,” was her carefully worded answer.
Her pitch is full Brexit, as soon as possible. She would trigger Article 50 immediately, starting the two-year withdrawal process. “The UK will leave the EU and freedom of movement will end,” she promised. But in an attempt to outflank Theresa May, she added that EU nationals who were already in Britain would get indefinite leave to remain. She also promised to stand up for working mothers, having mentioned repeatedly in the TV debates that she wanted to leave the EU, “as a mother”. (She has two sons and a daughter with her husband, Ben. Having suffered post-natal depression, she has also championed a charity for parents who find it hard to bond with their children.) Like Stephen Crabb, she is a committed Christian and did not vote for gay marriage.
Leadsom’s defensiveness came to the fore again in the Marr interview, especially when she was asked if she would publish her tax return. She stumbled before agreeing, but it should have come as no surprise: when she was appointed the City minister in 2014, she faced questions about her use of offshore banks to finance her buy-to-let company and her decision to put shares in trust for her children – a common way to avoid inheritance tax. “This is a normal corporate situation,” her spokesman said at the time.
It would be a paradox if her financial arrangements were used against her, because Leadsom’s pitch has relied heavily on her business experience, working for Barclays, Invesco Perpetual and De Putron Fund Management. The last of these is run by her brother-in-law Peter de Putron, who is based in Guernsey and has donated more than £800,000 to the Conservative Party since 2010 through UK-registered companies.
Her supporters sum up her pitch as “babies, banks and Brussels”. It could also be “the Brexiteer who isn’t covered in her colleagues’ blood”.
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers