In comments that were strongly denounced by some fellow Tories, Leadsom told the Times in an interview that being a mother was an advantage in the election because it showed that she had a “a very real stake” in the future of the country.
Leadsom, an energy minister who has only emerged within the last week as a serious contender to replace David Cameron, said that she did not want to capitalise on May’s childlessness because to do so would be “really horrible”.
But in the same interview she stressed having children as one factor that gave her a personal interest in the future of the country.
After the Times story was published on Friday night, Leadsom used Twitter to claim she had been misreported.
But the Times quotes Leadsom directly. Asked to to contrast herself with May, the home secretary, Leadsom said: “I see myself as one, an optimist, and two, a member of a huge family, and that’s important to me. My kids are a huge part of my life.”
Leadsom, 53, has two sons and a daughter. May, 59, is married, but has never had children. She has said little about this in public, but has made it clear that childlessness was not a choice.
In her interview Leadsom acknowledged that this must be a difficult subject for her rival. “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,” she said.
But Leadsom suggested that being a mother gave her an advantage. She said: “Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.”
She also said May “possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be part of what happens next”.
May, who is vastly more experienced than Leadsom, is still seen as the frontrunner and collected the votes of 199 Tory MPs compared to Leadsom’s 84. But with other candidates now eliminated, the election has reached the point where it will be left to members to decide, and Leadsom’s record as a prominent Vote Leave campaigner is likely to appeal to grassroots activists who are more anti-EU than their MPs. May backed remain.
May, who guards her private life, has said little about not being a mother in the past, but she did open up a little in an interview with the Mail on Sunday last weekend. “You see friends who now have grown-up children, but you accept the hand that life deals you,” she said.
“Sometimes things you wish had happened don’t or there are things you wish you’d been able to do, but can’t. There are other couples in a similar position.”
Leadsom’s interview was published in the Times as May announced that she would be signing a clean campaign pledge to keep the contest positive. She challenged Leadsom to do the same.
One of May’s five pledges was to keep campaigning within “acceptable limits of political debate”. The other four were to: stick to spending limits; not cooperate with other parties; keep social media campaigning clean; and do what is right for the party and the country.
Leadsom’s comments provoked an immediate backlash from some Conservatives on Twitter. The Tory MP Julian Smith, education minister Sam Gyimah and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party all voiced their opinion on the social media site.
May’s team declined to comment.
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