When Andrea Leadsom came on the phone yesterday afternoon I could tell from her voice that she’d been crying. After what had happened, the last thing she wanted was to talk to another journalist, but she agreed, with great trepidation, to speak to me as we’d planned.
Following what she thought was a friendly, professional meeting with a Times reporter on Friday, she found herself accused in a banner headline of saying that, as a mother she had the “edge” over the childless Theresa May in the race to be Prime Minister.
“I absolutely said, what I specifically said, is that motherhood should not play a part in the campaign,” says Leadsom. “I was pressed to say how my children had formed my views. I didn’t want it to be used as an issue. Having children has no bearing on the ability to be PM. I deeply regret that anyone has got the impression that I think otherwise.”
When I ask if she would like to apologise to Mrs May, she says: “I’ve already said to Theresa how very sorry I am for any hurt I have caused and how that article said completely the opposite of what I said and believe.”
She refuses to say how the message was conveyed to the Home Secretary, but she admits she has felt “under attack, under enormous pressure. It has been shattering.”
She doesn’t need to tell me. The lovely, confident, sparky woman I met on Friday sounds like the life force has drained out of her. Genuinely (a favourite Leadsom word), I feel for her. Politics at the highest level is a brutal game. And, as Bob Yerbury, Leadsom’s boss for 10 years at fund manager Invesco Perpetual, said when defending her last week from allegations that she had inflated her CV: “I would never, ever doubt her honesty. Andrea doesn’t play games.”
Well, she’s going to have to learn, and fast. According to one Cabinet minister, Leadsom now has to “prove she can take the heat or get back to the kitchen” where she loves to make a Sunday roast for her husband Ben and their three children. By her own admission, Leadsom is “guilty of naivety”. Hardly surprising. On June 29, she was still in talks to be chancellor in a Boris Johnson-Michael Gove government.
Having failed to get the agreed letter from Boris (probably the most tragic missing missive since Angel Clare’s note slid under the carpet in Tess of the D’Urbevilles) Leadsom declared she would run herself, capitalising on her lively, down-to earth performance in the referendum television debates.
She can hardly have dreamt that Boris and Gove would mutually self-destruct and she, a junior minister who has never held a Cabinet position, would be the last Brexiteer left standing. “I think it’s a great tragedy that Boris didn’t stand,” she says. “I really wanted him to stand.”
After that, things moved fast. Too fast. “Andrea basically had six days to come to terms with an entirely new world in the spotlight,” says her spokesman Bill Clare.
Even someone as amiable and decent as the aptly named energy minister was caught up in this crazy, post-referendum summer with its free-floating hatred and bitterness. I have no doubt whatsoever that Leadsom became the target of a brutal and sustained character assassination.
In no particular order, she has been called dangerous, implausible, a “religious maniac” (or Christian as it used to be known), dishonest, “Trump Lite”, the kind of mummy “who gives her kids ice cream for breakfast” (GQ), ghastly woman, “thick as pigs—”, “loathsome Leadsom” and those are just the printable names.
Who is throwing all this ordure at the previously blameless MP for South Northamptonshire, and why are they hurling it with such force?
According to Iain Duncan Smith, she is the victim of disgusting “black ops” by the Tory establishment. They are scared stiff that the warm and engaging Mrs Leadsom, who shares the traditional values of the Conservative rank and file who overwhelmingly voted Leave, could beat the more experienced and lukewarm Remainer, Mrs May.
“So long as my conscience is clear,” Leadsom says brightly as I scooted after her in a multistorey car park in Milton Keynes. (Brisk walker is Andrea, no wonder she’s so enviably slim and fit.) “My husband knows who I am. My friends, my family, they know I would never lie. If my conscience is clear then I don’t see the problem.”
But there was a problem. Theresa May’s team had been able to prepare for six months; by contrast, the Leadsom camp was making it up as they went along. On Friday, I was supposed to be meeting Andrea at 9.30am in Westminster. At 7.35am, I got a text saying, sorry, but Andrea is at home in Northamptonshire.
When I finally caught up with her at midday in Milton Keynes, and asked for a quiet place to talk, we ended up driving round in Andrea’s Golf till we found a Travelodge.
“We can’t take a room or people will jump to the wrong conclusion,” said Andrea with a mischievous smile. (I’m quite sure the party faithful would be more shocked we were in a Travelodge than by any lesbian extramaritals.)
So we ended up perching on a pair of plastic chairs in the smallest foyer in the world next to a fitfully groaning drinks machine. It felt like something out of I’m Alan Partridge, not an interview with someone who could be prime minister in 60 days. When I ask if she thinks the new leader of the Tory party should have campaigned for Brexit, she says carefully: “I do think the ideal leader would be somebody who truly believes in the opportunities of leaving the EU, yes.”
So can Theresa May be trusted to take us out of the EU? “Theresa has said she will deliver Brexit so I’m absolutely prepared to believe that.” We can take that as a maybe, then.
Leadsom is invariably depicted as a classic Right-winger, but she frequently confounds that image. I had read that she is anti-abortion (another smear), but she says she is “absolutely pro-choice” while “keeping an eye on scientific progress which makes foetuses viable earlier”.
She hopes Hillary beats Trump. She is passionate about child development and founded a charity which helps vulnerable mothers to bond with their babies. When she and Ben first met on a Barclays bank training course, every month they would take a bunch of disadvantaged kids on an outward-bound weekend. The memory lingers of a little boy who got badly stung when he tried to pick a blackberry. “He didn’t know what nettles were and he’d never seen a blackberry,” she recalls. “We wanted kids like him to just have a bit of childhood.”
I wonder how many Cameron modernisers, who fancy themselves enlightened compared with the “dangerous reactionary” Leadsom, have taken such a hands-on approach to their much-hyped sense of “social justice”. Unlike May, Leadsom has guaranteed that any EU migrant who is living here legally, and not a criminal, will have the right to stay. “Frankly, I think it is utterly awful to do other than that. There are people who have married here, have jobs here, you simply can’t leave their lives in limbo.”
If she becomes PM, she says the UK would continue to abide by free movement “until such time as we’ve left the EU. But at that point I would implement an arrangement whereby you could still come, but you would not have your right to stay here guaranteed.”
In a time of unprecedented turmoil, though, don’t we need a leader of proven stature like May? Isn’t there part of Leadsom that knows she’s a lightweight?
She hotly disputes it. “I definitely do not accept that. Theresa absolutely has the experience of government that I don’t have, but I have years of experience in the economy, working with teams big and small, and building things. I’ve set up businesses, I’ve set up charities, I have actually done the work myself.”
Only once does Leadsom’s trademark sunny smile turn into a frown, when I point out she’s been called “Ukip in a skirt”. “Could not be further from the truth,” she says, the low, mellifluous voice rising. “I don’t work with Ukip, they don’t advise me. I’ve never met Arron Banks [the millionaire party donor and founder of Leave:EU)].” She “absolutely would rule out giving Nigel Farage a job”.
But if Leadsom doesn’t much care for Ukip, Ukip really likes Leadsom. On Sunday, Banks told the Andrew Marr Show that, if Leadsom failed to win the leadership, he was prepared to put a fortune into founding a new Brexit party. Of the two female candidates, it looks like Leadsom is the only one who could bring almost four million Ukip voters back into the fold because they believe she will serve up the full English Brexit rather than some Continental fudge.
“My biggest hope,” she admits, “is that by delivering a good exit for us from the EU, Ukip will become a thing of the past.” Andrea Jacqueline Salmon was born on May 13 1963. The middle one in a trio of sisters, her parents divorced when she was four, leaving her redoubtable mother, Judy, to take care of three little girls under five. Times were tough. They lived in a two and half-bedroomed house and “ate a lot of pilchards on toast”. Judy had trained as a children’s nurse, but she found work in a shop by day and a pub at night to keep the family afloat.
“We were never on benefits,” says Leadsom. Andrea and her sisters were looked after by a lodger. I gather from the way she averts her eyes when she says that she wore glasses and was “very insecure” that there was a lot of unhappiness, but Leadsom insists “there is no sob story here. We had the most brilliant, supportive mum all the way through”. Judy was a brilliant dressmaker and the girls won first prize in the beauty contest at the village fête wearing contrasting dresses their mum had sewn out of orange curtains. Like Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music?
“Exactly, but don’t say that because that’s a bit of a sob story, too.” How interesting, in this X Factor age of epic self-pity, to find someone so reluctant to reveal themselves, so insistent that “private” should mean private. Judy remarried and the family moved to Kent where Andrea attended Tonbridge Grammar School (“fabulous”) and her parents set up a furniture shop. Andrea’s stepfather was a Labour man while her mother was a staunch Tory.
At the dinner table, she got a taste for politics. “At the time we had very high taxes on the self-employed and my mum was part of a campaign for what was then the National Federation for the Self-Employed to resist these massive taxes.” She remembers her parents writing a cheque for their taxes on the side of a wardrobe. “It was a rebellion,” she says proudly.
She knew she wanted to be a politician when she was 13. “I was really worried about a nuclear war. It was at the time that CND was very strong and I felt that we needed our independent nuclear deterrent and Britain had to stand up and be counted.” Forty years later, she still wants us to stand up and be counted, no matter what attacks they make on her. She says she wants to sign Theresa May’s Clean Campaign Pledge “because I have said that I will only act with the highest integrity and deal with honourable people”.
Forty years later, she still wants us to stand up and be counted, no matter what attacks they make on her. She says she wants to sign Theresa May’s Clean Campain Pledge “because I have said from the start that I will only act with the highest integrity and deal with honourable people.”
It’s been a brutally hard week which makes you wonder why anyone would go into politics. On the phone, I asked Andrea Leadsom when she last cried. There is a pause. “Twenty minutes ago,” she admits with a wobble. But, don’t worry, it’s not a sob story. She doesn’t believe in those. Meanwhile, she’s off to make a roast chicken stretch for the children’s friends who just turned up unexpectedly. “Lots of roast potatoes.”
Putting on a brave face, making the best of things, and soldiering on, she is much like swathes of Tory voters up and down the land. Will they really ignore her, as all the pundits predict, when it comes to the ballot in September? Not everything has to end in tears.