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Andrea Leadsom: "In politics, you deal with what’s in front of you"

10 min read

After the chastening experience of her first leadership contest, Andrea Leadsom believes she is in a good place to run to be Prime Minister for a second time. With a plan that she insists will see Brexit delivered by 31 October, and a strong message on tackling climate change, the former Leader of the House is trying to get the word out there. She speaks to Sebastian Whale 

A public service notice came through the door of Andrea Leadsom’s childhood home. It was during the Cold War, and families were being instructed on how to build a nuclear shelter in the event of the unthinkable. The 13-year-old picked up the mailshot.

“It was quite clear that a lot of you will die and there may be bodies unburied for a long time. It was really quite a horror story,” she recalls.

For reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Leadsom decided there and then that she wanted to run for public office. “I thought right, well, I’m going to be an MP and save the world from a nuclear war.” When she regales this anecdote to schoolchildren, she tells them: “It worked”.

Forty years later and Leadsom, the MP for South Northamptonshire since 2010, found herself running to replace David Cameron. Though her desire to enter politics had been longstanding, it took the 2016 EU referendum campaign to trigger her interest in becoming prime minister. Having had a good war, Leadsom – once largely unknown outside of Westminster – found herself in the final two in the Tory leadership race.

What happened next is well known – Leadsom gave an interview to The Times in which she appeared to suggest that being a mother gave her an advantage over Theresa May. She dropped out days later, citing the then Home Secretary’s superior support among Conservative MPs.

The three years since that contest have seen Leadsom politically rejuvenated, in no small part to her performance as Leader of the Commons. She resigned from the Cabinet in May over the inclusion of a referendum clause in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. She is adjusting to life back in her parliamentary office (an aide says it’s like a student returning home from university), where we meet on a Wednesday afternoon.

Now running for the second time to be PM, I’m keen to find out what Leadsom learnt from the first contest. “Be prepared, be clear about what it is you want to achieve and be honourable. I certainly think I was honourable in 2016. Now, I would say I have been prepared and I have been very clear about what it is I want to achieve.”

Given what we know about Theresa May’s shortfalls as a campaigning politician, does Leadsom think she could have won in 2016 if she’d stuck out the race? “I don’t really want to go back over old ground,” she says, assertively. “At the time, Theresa had two-thirds of the parliamentary party behind her and we needed urgent leadership. So, if we had our time again with the facts that were around at the time, I would have still made the same decision.”

There is a clear difference between the Leadsom of 2016 and the one before me. The latter version has spent three years in the Cabinet, one as Defra secretary and two as Commons Leader. In her most recent role, she helped establish a new complaints procedure; responded to the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in Westminster; navigated Brexit legislation through a hung parliament; introduced proxy voting and was intimately involved with plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.

“It has been a huge number of specific but also more personality developing experiences that would really stand me in good stead as prime minister,” she argues.

Leadsom is particularly keen to champion her cross-party work and given her track record of dealing with contentious issues, reckons she is well set to navigate the choppy seas of Brexit. “Of course, in a hung parliament, good communication is essential, working cross-party is essential and keeping lines of communication open.”

Her often tense relationship with John Bercow has also caught the eye. The two have traded blows in the Commons, with Leadsom calling out the Chair for allegedly referring to her as a “stupid woman”. With Speaker Bercow facing allegations of bullying – which he denies – has it been difficult seeing him in the Chair while Leadsom has been trying to overhaul the culture of Parliament?

“Changing the culture is about much, much more than just the behaviour of one individual. But nevertheless, it is definitely my opinion that the role of the Chair is vital in upholding the dignity and respect that we want to see everybody experiencing. And I think, at times, that’s not always been the case. That’s been a grave concern. Having said all that, the role of the Speaker is a critical role and I would always show respect to the office,” she says.

How would she describe their relationship? Leadsom pauses. “I have worked with him on the House of Commons Commission, on various issues such as the restoration and renewal of the Palace, the repairs to Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower, on sorting out the opening hours for the bars. So, we can work together in a perfectly collegiate way. But I have always felt that we have to stand and be counted where you see something not right. That’s what I’ve always sought to do.”

She adds: “I believe that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, and where I think an individual – whoever they are – isn’t treating people with the dignity and respect that they deserve, then I call it out. So, equally, the very next day I won’t be sulking, I’ll be working in a collegiate way. But I will not stand by and watch people be bullied and ridiculed and talked down to when I can see that that is not the right way to behave.”

I ask about Speaker Bercow, of course, because he has vowed to stay in the Chair to see Brexit through, which could put a bit of a kybosh on Leadsom’s plans for leaving the European Union. Leadsom is pursuing a “managed exit” from by 31 October, which she insists is “very different” to a no deal exit. “A managed exit would not be something that parliament would seek to block en masse. It would be something that parliament would welcome en masse,” she contends.

Her proposals involve increasing preparations for no deal, protecting the rights of UK and EU citizens, securing the future of Gibraltar and secure side deals with the EU based on the Withdrawal Agreement (some have questioned the likelihood of this latter point). “So, it will be very clearly in the EU’s interest to agree, to bank some of the measures that were already agreed in the EU Withdrawal Agreement but that could be sensibly put into legislation in the United Kingdom and then ratified by the EU 27 in order that we have a sensible Brexit at the end of October.”

As for concerns that the Speaker could thwart her plans, she says: “I would expect, and I do believe that the Speaker would uphold the right of parliament to express its views.”

While Leadsom admits that under her strategy, MPs would have the opportunity to put forward amendments, she casts doubt that the Commons would vote to revoke Article 50. Should MPs back another delay to Brexit, she says the EU 27 would not sanction it. And she argues that a no-confidence motion would not gain enough support from Tory MPs. In other words, bring it on.

“I think it’s essential that we leave on the 31st October in all circumstances. Having a managed exit is the best possible way at this point to be able to leave with a smooth exit from the EU.”

After the UK has left the EU, Leadsom proposes forming workstreams to look at “permanent arrangements” for; the Northern Ireland border, a free trade agreement, the UK-EU security relationship and areas for collaboration, such as on the European Medicines Agency and the Erasmus programme for students.

Leadsom held her nose at various stages while in the Cabinet and supported the Withdrawal Agreement at all three times of asking, believing that ultimately it would lead to Brexit. She laments that other Brexiteers – she names no names – left her and other Leavers in the lurch by exiting May’s top team.

As for her own Cabinet, Leadsom would not arbitrarily seek to employ more Brexit supporters than Remain voters. “I actually think the experience of the last few months has demonstrated to all of us that we can’t any longer think of ourselves as Brexiteers and Remainers,” she says. But there would be no space in her government for those in the Tory party who haven’t reconciled themselves to Brexit.

“I would only be able to have people in government who were absolutely clear that we must leave the European Union. But at the same time, I think that incorporates almost every single person in our parliamentary party,” she says.

Championing her good relationships with members of the DUP, Leadsom insists the confidence and supply arrangement can be restored to good health with “better communication and a clear plan towards Brexit”.

Other than Brexit, Leadsom is seeking to take a lead on climate change. As prime minister, she would declare a climate emergency. She argues that the clean growth technology sector could be bigger than the financial services industry (where Leadsom spent most of her career) to the UK economy. Specifically, she would create a Cabinet sub-committee to work closely with the Committee on Climate Change to review how to decarbonise fully by 2050. The Government’s industrial strategy would focus on the clean growth tech sector, and a proportion of overseas development aid would be used to promote decarbonisation in developing countries.

Taking such a stance would see the UK taking its place on the world stage, would have “huge” domestic appeal to young voters and families, and be “good politics” because it would “demonstrate our willingness to show leadership”, she argues.

Can she win over Donald Trump on the issue? “We’ve just seen the value of actually reaching out and welcoming with a state visit the President of the United States, the democratically-elected head of the leading nation in the free world,” Leadsom replies. “If you’re in the same room as somebody, you can talk to them very openly about the things you disagree on and then you can have a hope that they’ll give you a good hearing and amend their views as a result.”

Leadsom laments the “absolutely disgraceful behaviour” of some protestors who had altercations with pro-Trump supporters during the US President’s visit. Footage showed one elderly man being pushed to the floor. “I really deeply regret those who felt that it was the right thing to do to be so vile,” she says. As for the collapse in political discourse, she points the finger at social media, and floats the idea of having “pre-tailored responses” to trolls saying, “this is extremely spiteful, this is extremely aggressive, this is violent”.

At the 2017 election, she took matters into her own hands by confronting abusive social media users on their doorstep, having had access to their addresses. “If you knock on their door and say ‘hi, I saw what you said about me last night, I wonder if you’d like to chat about it’. And they’re like ‘err, oh, did I?’”

Leadsom, who cites William Wilberforce as a political hero, is up against it in this campaign. Rule changes to the leadership contest haven’t helped her cause, with candidates now required to get a higher number of nominees to make the first round of voting. She is confident she can get across the line.

“Obviously it favours those who’ve been planning their campaign for a long period of time. In politics, you deal with what’s in front of you. I’m a pragmatist, so that’s the challenge – just get on with it.”

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