Jaw-dropping entertainment: Lord Vaizey reviews 'Snakes and Ladders'
London, 4 July 2016: Andrea Leadsom at a press conference during her leadership bid | Alamy
An excellent if gentle memoir, Andrea Leadsom’s honesty and willingness to own her mistakes makes for a refreshing read
I first met Andrea Leadsom when she was a local councillor in my constituency. I had been selected as the parliamentary candidate for Wantage in time for the 2005 election, and indeed had beaten her in the process. Shortly afterwards, Andrea became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful daughter. The first jaw-dropping revelation in her excellent memoir is that she attended a selection meeting for another constituency on the evening of the day she gave birth! Respect!
Andrea didn’t win that selection either, and was not elected to Parliament until 2010. But as the anecdote shows, with determination like that, it is no surprise at all that she easily eclipsed my own modest career. She almost became prime minister, and she served as a distinguished minister and cabinet minister.
This is a relatively gentle memoir, written almost as an aide-mémoire to her political career rather than an essential insight into great events. But given there were a few dramatic moments, the avid political student will gain some useful insider perspectives. In fact, it is fair to say that Andrea can claim some credit, inadvertently, for the complete debacle we have witnessed in British politics since the Brexit referendum.
It is unusual for a politician to take the reader on a journey
I refer, of course, to the missing letter. The letter that never was. The letter which, if it had been handed over, would have changed the course of history. When Boris decided to stand in 2016, a potential triumvirate emerged of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. Andrea, understandably, pushed for a big job and was rather put out when Gove revealed he would be deputy PM, chancellor and Brexit secretary. Andrea won the argument that Gove should not be omnipotent but – having got Boris’ number earlier than the rest of us, as it were – insisted on a letter (and a tweet, this is the 21st century) formalising the arrangement. Sadly Boris forgot to hand over the letter at the Tory party ball, so Andrea decided to stand, and Gove decided to knife Boris for being incompetent. The rest is history.
Shortly afterwards, Andrea decided to stand herself, and made the final two against Theresa May. Then came the famous interview with Rachel Sylvester from The Times, where the story was slanted to give the impression that Andrea thought she would be a better PM than May as she was a mother. The memoir reveals that Andrea had been thinking of standing aside in any event, because she was worried that the campaign was so long it would have an impact on the British economy and Brexit. So the interview, it turns out, did not lead to her demise – it was more the straw that broke her back.
In examining this episode, Andrea returns to a theme present throughout her book – refreshing modesty and a willingness to admit to mistakes, in this case agreeing to a hastily arranged interview without a minder or tape recorder. It is unusual for a politician to take the reader on a journey, and show how their inexperience led to mistakes but more importantly the ability to learn from them. It’s a kind memoir, and few get biffed, though David Cameron is unfairly (in my view) chastised for resigning, Lee Cain gets deliberately faint praise, and John Bercow gets what he deserved.
Lord Vaizey is a Conservative peer
Snakes and Ladders: Navigating the ups and downs of politics
By: Andrea Leadsom
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.