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Gauche and plain wrong... why Andrea should have known mum's not the word

Leadsom's remarks about Theresa May's childlessness showed she didn't grasp the country's mood, says Gail Walker

Published 12/07/2016

Home Secretary Theresa May officially launches her campaign to become prime minister at Austin Court in Birmingham. PA
Home Secretary Theresa May officially launches her campaign to become prime minister at Austin Court in Birmingham. PA

Only time will tell how much Andrea Leadsom's decision yesterday to withdraw from the contest with Theresa May for the leadership of the Conservative Party and, therefore, for the occupancy of 10 Downing Street, was down to dark internal Tory forces and how much it was down to the dreadful faux pas of the opening and what turned out to be the closing weekend of her campaign.

Certainly, it could be said this relative newcomer who had "risen without trace" to be a contender may have been a convenient weapon to sabotage Michael Gove's ambitions to be Prime Minister - something like a baseball bat - to be discarded once that job was done. Perhaps a nest has been prepared for her in May's first Cabinet as Prime Minister.

Equally, though, her remarks about May's childlessness last Friday, in comparison with her own maternal fecundity, would have been enough in themselves to have scuppered the ambitions of more seasoned campaigners than she, even if she had been the favoured candidate of the party.

Much as it may sadden philosophers, ideologues and pseudo-intellectuals, we rarely judge the "ishoos" (to quote Tony Benn) divorced from personality.

We don't really approve this or that policy position divorced from the person proposing it. Rather, we invest faith in the person who is outlining those beliefs. At heart, most of us ask ourselves three questions: Do I like them? Do I trust them? Are they like me?

That is why Leadsom's interview with The Times was such a disaster. She forced us to ask what there was to like about her and what there was to trust. And who on Earth actually talks or thinks those things?

For a start, for all her indignation about context and misquotation, she actually said what she said. And here is what she said: "So really carefully because I am sure, I don't really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really, really sad she doesn't have children so I don't want this to be 'Andrea has children, Theresa hasn't' because I think that would be really horrible.

"But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

"She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next."

That looks bad because it is bad. It is even worse when viewed in the context of May's recent admission that she and her husband Philip had wanted to have children and of her heartbreak when it wasn't to be.

At their worst, Leadsom's comments might at least have had a certain apocalyptic Trumpish quality (or lack of quality): the use of a woman's childlessness against her has an electric charge about it, a mad variety of warped Biblical admonition.

As the lowest of low blows, it might at least have had some devious, if grossly miscalculated, political logic in a contest of extreme desperation, given how far she trailed May in the affections of the party faithful. Instead, though, Leadsom's comments just sounded like the idiocies of someone with no political antennae and someone without an iota of wit. Even at their best, therefore, they were potentially fatal to the gain of high office.

But for the moment let us be kind and say that she "misspoke". So, what does that say about her? First of all it says that she wasn't quite the rising star she was cracked up to be.

But, critically, they betrayed the fact that she doesn't understand the country she aspired to lead.

True, some people may hanker in a post-modern nostalgic way for the slightly droll certainties of the Fifties, or even the Eighties, or whatever demographic Leadsom was aiming at. But no one wants to go back there. Not really. And we simply can't in any case. And while we are at it, the prejudice betrayed within Leadsom's world view is one on which people right across the political divide stumble and blunder. It's in that third question we ask about politics: "Are they like me?"

There are vast tracts of society who are not a part of Leadsom's mum and apple pie world: the happily childless by choice, the unhappy/happy/reconciled childless by circumstance, by fate, by accident, by happenstance; people who happen to be gay.

Their lives, their engagement with life, is not somehow less - less important, less vital, less forward-looking, less progressive, less altruistic - than those with children. Even a casual glance at the political scene would have shown Leadsom she was spouting nonsense.

The most effective politico in Britain? Nicola Sturgeon. Childless. The most important figure in Europe? Angela Merkel. Childless. Britain's most successful Home Secretary for decades? Theresa May. Childless. One of her own most public supporters and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. Childless.

You could spend hours at this sort of weird parlour game, naming powerful women (and men, of course) from the worlds of politics and commerce and industry who don't have children, but who are still very much engaged with the future every day.

No matter what you may think of their individual politics or strategies, these aren't flibbertigibbets living recklessly for today with no investment in the future.

The implication of Leadsom's comments is that those who have no children are shallower and more wrapped up in themselves than supposedly selfless "mums and dads". Spelled out like that, it is obviously stupid.

But the fact is it lies behind how so many of the values in our society are constructed.

Her comments are not ill-advised simply because they are embarrassingly gauche and insensitive and inappropriate. They are ill-advised because they are wrong.

"Keep mum - she's not so dumb" was the less-than-PC slogan during the war.

When it comes to introducing biology into politics, it's still the best advice by far.

Belfast Telegraph

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