Andrea Leadsom: “I certainly think Theresa May can lead the Tories into the next election”
As Leader of the Commons in a hung Parliament, Andrea Leadsom faces a huge task to build consensus for the government’s Brexit plans. She talks to Kevin Schofield about reaching out to the Opposition, her relationship with No.10 and why she remains firmly behind Theresa May
Less than a week after the general election, Britain awoke to the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire. With politics in stasis following the shock result just six days before, the inferno became a symbol of a country in crisis, where some of its poorest citizens were not even safe as they slept.
As the nation looked to its prime minister for leadership, Theresa May was judged to have been found wanting. Her first visit to the site saw her meet members of the emergency services, rather than local residents, survivors or the victims’ families. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was pictured later the same day comforting some of those traumatised by what had happened.
Two days after the blaze, with the death toll continuing to rise and May still to meet any locals, new House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom appeared at the scene. With the Sky News cameras rolling, she deftly dealt with angry residents demanding action from the government.
Her surprise visit led to claims that she had gone there without notifying Number 10 in advance, angering the embattled Downing Street officials, who apparently only knew about it when she popped up on their TV screens. Some observers even suggested that it was an attempt to paint the prime minister in a bad light.
Leadsom insists, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. “Number 10 absolutely did know that I was going,” she says. “The prime minister was absolutely heartbroken about what happened at Grenfell. She has sought to lead the efforts to try and help those victims and I think she really couldn’t have done more to show her desire to try and help and do everything possible.
“The day before there had been an emergency briefing for MPs, and because the House wasn’t sitting it was outside of normal procedures. I sat through that briefing and it was very clear what tragic and utterly unbelievable and appalling things had taken place and how deeply upset and moved so many colleagues were across all parties.
“I asked for agreement to just go and talk to residents on behalf of my colleagues in the House and I really just wanted to go and say how incredibly sorry and moved people were. That was the purpose of the visit.”
After barely a month as Commons leader, it is clear that Leadsom is eager to boost the profile of a role which has traditionally been seen as a step towards the government exit door.
Contrary to the gloom enveloping most Conservative MPs since the election, she thinks a hung parliament is an opportunity to respond to voters’ apparent desire for politics to be done differently.
She says: “As leader of the Commons, along with the chief whip here and the leader and chief whip in the Lords, we have to look at all legislation and ensure we’re confident that we can get it through both houses.
“It’s actually an enormous opportunity, because in the country it was quite clear that the result of the general election was that people didn’t have a strong pull towards a particular party. Ending up with a hung parliament gives you the message that you do need to negotiate, consult and work closely together. So that’s what I’ll be doing as leader of the Commons.”
Key elements of the Conservative election manifesto – scrapping the triple lock on pensions, means-testing the winter fuel allowance and repealing the ban on fox hunting to name just three – were jettisoned as soon as it became clear they could not command a majority in the new-look parliament,
Leadsom insists that a packed legislative agenda remains, not least the eight bills related to Britain’s departure from the European Union. “At the heart of it is making a success of Brexit, but we also have enormous measures to try and improve lives for people,” she says. “We have measures to support the economy, to have the high skilled jobs for the future, the space flight bill to promote commercial satellites and space flight, we’ve got the autonomous vehicles legislation. And then on the social legislation side we have very strong and popular measures around mental health for example – a big personal commitment of the prime minister’s, and mine too, to secure stronger mental health for the nation and more measures to protect people from domestic violence. So all measures that the country will benefit from and will want to see.
“We also have measures to strengthen the United Kingdom, something that as we leave the EU will be even more important than ever, that we bring our four nations together and make the most of the Brexit opportunities. And protecting our people through measures to prevent extremism and to fight terrorism. They are all measures that will carry a lot of support across the House.
“Not having a majority in either House does mean that we need to work on proposals that really will carry broad support and we’ll want to consult widely with opposition parties and take account of their views and their input. That’s why I think it’s going to be a good parliament.”
Leadsom’s optimism would appear to be misplaced. Jeremy Corbyn’s first response to the new spirit of consensus was to send the prime minister a signed copy of the Labour manifesto with the message: “You asked for policy ideas, so here’s our general election manifesto. Kind regards.”
Despite those less-than-encouraging beginnings, Leadsom says she is confident the Labour leadership will eventually get on board.
“I would just like to make clear that we do need and want to be finding a consensus way forward, so where it’s possible to take account of all opposition parties’ views then we would like to do that,” she says. “We want to make progress on behalf of the country and there are opportunities.”
For someone often painted as being on manoeuvres against her leader – reports surfaced recently that she was being urged by supporters to challenge May – Leadsom is extremely on-message during our chat. No opportunity to make clear her loyalty to the prime minister is passed up.
Asked about last year’s Conservative leadership contest – which she dropped out of despite making the final run-off – she insists there is no one better suited to leading the country at such a tumultuous time in its history.
“I think we had exactly the right outcome for the country. Theresa May was exactly the right person to become leader and I’ve always been clear that the reason I withdrew was because Theresa May had the support of Members of Parliament and had been very clear about her intention to fulfil the will of the people in the referendum.
“I still remain absolutely clear that she remains the right person to be leading this country.”
But would she agree, given the fact that the Conservatives lost their overall majority, that calling the election had been a mistake?
“I think the prime minister was right to call the election,” she insists. “We’d had a period where, although we had managed to get the Article 50 trigger legislation passed and we’d managed to make progress, nevertheless it was a difficult environment because people felt that there wasn’t the mandate to do this or that, and the prime minister was quite right to go to the country and seek that mandate to make a clean and successful Brexit for the United Kingdom.
“I think she achieved that – a majority of people voted for parties that do support the outcome of the referendum.”
Given the criticism of May’s campaigning skills, does Leadsom now think she may be sitting in Number 10 right now had she not decided to withdraw from last year’s race? “I don’t speculate on what might or might not have happened,” she says. “I think Theresa May is the right person to be leading the country and I’m absolutely sure of that.”
Intriguingly, however, Leadsom refuses to deny that some of her colleagues – perhaps some of those who took part in the infamous march on parliament last year – have called on her privately to strike out for the top job.
She says: “I’m absolutely committed to backing Theresa May. For me, politics is about trying to do something positive to make your country and the world you live in a better place. And I’m absolutely convinced that the way to do this right now is to get behind Theresa May in the challenges we face as a country to make a huge success of Brexit, but also to deal with the many different issues that face our society around low pay, the challenges for making a success of Britain’s future in an increasingly globalised world, about taking advantage of the enormous opportunities that new technologies and new industries bring to us, and so I really support the prime minister in what she is doing.
“I’m working as a loyal member of Theresa May’s government to make a success of her leadership in order that we take this great country forward.”
Leadsom even goes against the received wisdom at Westminster that there is no way the prime minister will be in place come the next election – and is only in place right now because her rivals do not have an agreed strategy for her removal.
“I certainly think she can [lead the Tories into the next election],” she says. “For every leader, they make their decisions and I certainly think she will be leading this country for as long as she wishes to do so.”
For now, that means being the prime minister responsible for securing the best possible deal from the Brexit negotiations.
As pressure grows from both the opposition and many on her own benches to soften her stance – in particular her resolute refusal to allow the European Court of Justice any role at all in post-Brexit Britain – some are even beginning to suggest that the UK will actually remain in the EU. Leadsom – a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign – rejects that out of hand.
She says: “The result of the referendum was clear and the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU and the prime minister and the entire government are committed to fulfilling the will of the people. I fully understand that there are those that wish the outcome of the referendum had been different, and it will be very important that as we leave the EU we take into account all of the views and concerns, but that we focus on making a clean Brexit where we continue to trade freely and co-operate fully with our European friends and neighbours. But in terms of will we leave the EU? Yes we absolutely will.”
Despite being criticised for calling on the media to be more “patriotic” in its Brexit coverage, Leadsom still suggests that the advantages of Brexit are being overlooked by journalists.
She says: “I’m always hoping that people will look at the opportunities as much as they look at the risks and so my call is always for a bit of even-handedness in terms of assessing opportunity and risk. I would just like to call for even-handedness. We’ve taken a decision as a country and therefore it is helpful if there is a fair amount of time and comment given to the opportunities of leaving the EU, as well as to the possible downside.”
As Tory MPs depart for a well-earned summer break, Andrea Leadsom appears more optimistic than most about the challenges facing both the country and their party. And the suspicion remains that she believes her own role in addressing them will only grow in the years ahead.