Only two days ago, many in the Conservative party were hopeful that they were about to close an ugly chapter in British politics and embark on a civilised midsummer contest between two women – Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom – for the job of leader and prime minister.
A dignified race had been triggered to find the new Margaret Thatcher, a second Iron Lady able to deliver strong leadership in the most difficult of times.
In its leader column on Friday morning the Daily Telegraph declared that following a hugely divisive referendum campaign, and with Labour in turmoil, the contest between May and Leadsom for the keys of No 10 would show how political argument should be conducted in the best traditions.
“The Tory contest,” it said, “should be vigorous and sow the seeds of reconciliation and unity.”
May and Leadsom would show up the Tory and Labour men. It would be a clean, honest, straight fight. Most Conservative MPs and members had been appalled by how Michael Gove, a week previously, had stabbed Boris Johnson, the original favourite and his friend of 30 years, in the back and killed off his chances of reaching No 10. It was, most thought, a terrible example of raw, male political ambition, and damaging to the Tory party.
So vicious was the subsequent backlash against the justice secretary that his own chances of succeeding David Cameron, and his carefully honed reputation, were also destroyed.
When Tory MPs whittled the original five candidates to a final two on Thursday, just 46 backed Gove, against 84 for Leadsom and 199 for May. The men – Gove included - were all out and it was time to do things differently.
But the hope that May v Leadsom would be more dignified did not last long. Yesterday, Leadsom’s suggestion in an interview with the Times that she would make a better prime minister than May because she had children, whereas her opponent had none, caused a firestorm which threatens to sour the final, all-female leg of this contest.
Even some of Leadsom’s supporters admitted they felt let down. “I am disappointed and frankly pretty appalled,” said one MP who had backed the energy minister all the way. “There is no justification for these kind of remarks.”
May’s backers were disgusted, too, and, privately, said Leadsom should apologise publicly before pulling out of the race. A member of May’s campaign team said: “Being the most charitable I can be, Andrea Leadsom has shown the kind of naivety that shows beyond any doubt that she is utterly unsuited to running this country.”
Social media comments tore into Leadsom. Vanessa Dixon wrote on Leadsom’s Facebook profile: “You are a woman with no understanding of others. It is to my complete relief that you have no chance of becoming the next prime minister”.
Dorota Zaleska told her she should resign from political life. “Being a mother does not make you a better candidate for prime minister. I find your opinion disgusting!”
Maxine White wrote: “How to alienate half the population in one swoop. Yours is just one opinion and, in this circumstance, a very insulting one.”
The official reaction from the May camp was to stay above it all. It was an opportunity to reinforce the message that their candidate was serious and honourable, unwilling to stoop to anything so low. May was not, however, completely silent.
She used Twitter to call on Leadsom to sign up to her five- point pledge, which includes a commitment to keep all campaigning “within acceptable limits of political debate”. May’s backers – the likes of cabinet minister Amber Rudd and campaign manager Damian Green – retweeted the appeal for all it was worth.
An unapologetic Leadsom, with nowhere to go but to blame the messenger, went into battle with the Times. She demanded a copy of the tape and transcript and a full apology online within an hour of registering her complaint.
Speaking outside her home in Northamptonshire, she said she was “disgusted about how this has been presented”.
“In the course of a lengthy interview yesterday, I was repeatedly asked about my children and I repeatedly made it clear that I did not want this in any way a feature of the campaign,” she added. She would not apologise or withdraw. She had nothing to be sorry for.
The view that Leadsom was naive to have spoken as she did is not the only interpretation MPs are putting on the episode.
Some who back May believe deliberate political calculation could have been involved. One pointed out that Leadsom’s campaign manager, the Tory MP Tim Loughton, had been caught up in a not dissimilar controversy in 2013, having cast doubt on the suitability of his then unmarried and childless former ministerial colleague, the ex-Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather, to run family policy.
“The person who was actually in charge of family policy amongst the ministerial team at the DfE was Sarah Teather, which was a bit difficult because she doesn’t really believe in family,” Loughton said at the time.
“She certainly didn’t produce one of her own, so it became a bit of a family-free zone. I think that is a huge disappointment.” He later apologised.
If May supporters were outraged by Leadsom’s remarks, they were also worried. If political contests were predictable these days, then mother-of-three Leadsom, already under pressure over claims on her CV about her City career, and her opposition to Cameron’s laws on gay marriage, would have suffered as a result of her comments. But there are plenty of Tories at Westminster who believe the opposite could be the case.
One senior figure said: “The fact is that all the outrage that will be generated over this in the media will be seen in the country as an establishment trying to stitch her up, the underdog being persecuted. The worry is that this really could help her. She is profoundly dangerous to May. She can win.”
Another May backer said Leadsom was a real threat because, in these days of political insurgency, grassroots Tory activists see her as the new one, different, clear-headed, the newcomer against the standard bearer of the tainted establishment.
Another Conservative with influence said that whereas May talked in Whitehall-speak and sounded bureaucratic, Leadsom seemed to people outside the Westminster bubble as more normal, natural, less careful, straighter in her answers.
“She, for instance, will name a date for triggering negotiations on Brexit. May won’t. Her inexperience, call it what you want, can help her. She is a nightmare. I don’t think this row will play much in the shires.”
A survey by ConservativeHome last week, before the candidate list was reduced to two, showed Leadsom ahead of May by one point when party members were asked who they preferred as their next prime minister.
Leadsom’s ratings were “soaring into the stratosphere up, up and away. She scoops 38% – a single point higher than Theresa May”, said the website of the party’s grassroots.
Elsewhere on this website, two senior Tories on the right of the party – Norman Tebbit and Bill Cash – who both want a Brexit campaigner to be leader rather than May, who wanted to remain in the EU, stick by Leadsom, suggesting she has been a victim of media and establishment entrapment.
Tebbit says: “I am inclined to support Leadsom despite the fake brouhaha over her reference to how motherhood has formed her views.”
The question now is how Tory members in the party’s heartlands will react. Last week on a visit to Reigate, in Surrey, a staunchly Tory, pro-Brexit area, the Observer found that Leadsom seemed to hold more appeal because she was new. Typical was Tory voter John Stevens, sitting enjoying a large glass of white wine outside Cafe Rouge in the centre of town with his wife, Paula. “I have an inkling for Leadsom,” he said. “She is a breath of fresh air. Very calm, very positive. No ums and errs.”
Whether her views on family will seriously damage her will depend on how the unpredictable Tory electorate of 150,000 behaves over the next weeks.
As the media lapped up the Leadsom row, senior establishment Tories continued to attack her. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said from the Nato summit in Warsaw that what made someone qualified to be prime minister had nothing to do with whether they had children.
“What makes you qualified to be prime minister is having long experience, a clear understanding of the big issues facing this country, and a proven track record of being robust in the face of the many pressures that people at the front line of politics face all the time.”
It had taken just two days of an eight-week campaign to show that an all-women contest can be just as vicious and unpleasant as those involving men.
How Conservatives reacted on Twitter
Julian Smith (@juliansmithmp) Devastatingly depressing, divisive comments on childless women & men by @andrealeadsom. I am so disappointed and embarrassed. #ToryLeadership
Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch)
@andrealeadsom I knew it! I knew it! Demand the unedited transcript x
Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) @AdrianYalland @andrealeadsom @thetimes
At this point I would not trust a transcript get the audio
Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorriesMP) Head of Twitter exploded bcse
@andrealeadsom talked about being a mum. It gives her a holistic perspective. She should talk about it more
Sir Eric Pickles (@EricPickles)
Tacky @andrealeadsom very tacky, glad I’m supporting @TheresaMay2016
Alan Duncan (@AlanDuncanMP) I’m gay and in a civil partnership. No children, but 10 nieces and nephews. Do I not have a stake in the future of the country? Vile
Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) @thetimes shd release the transcript because, if true, utterly repugnant, if false v damaging & @andrealeadsom deserves their full apology
Anna Soubry MP (@Anna_Soubry) Today’s @thetimes interview shows #AndreaLeadsom is not PM material. She should do us all a favour including herself and step aside...
Sam Gyimah MP (@SamGyimah)
Wrong and insulting for Leadsom to say those who are childless care less about the future. Being a parent doesn’t qualify you to be PM
Compiled by Danny Vacca
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