I knew very little about Andrea Leadsom before I met her. Like many, I had watched Leadsom’s 2016 Conservative Leadership campaign go up in flames after suggesting in an interview that she is would make a better Prime Minister because she is a mother, and her opponent Theresa May is not. We’ll never know whether she truly meant it, but there’s no smoke without fire.
An invitation to a ‘round table discussion with Andrea Leadsom’ had arrived just two days before the event. With so little context given, I arrived not knowing what to expect. Fortunately, the other attendees were as backfooted as I was, and all we sat meekly around a huge table waiting for the grand reveal.
On entering, Leadsom explained that this was an opportunity to ‘meet the youth of Scotland’. She wanted to ‘hear our views’ on the 100 year anniversary of female suffrage, learn how the youth get politically involved, and give us the chance to voice ‘any other issues’. (Where to begin?) Considering just five attendees were Scottish, the last minute invite list felt a little botched. My inner cynic guessed that Leadsom’s team had found a spare hour in her Scotland tour schedule and that her Twitter feed needed to feature more people under 35.
However before anyone spoke, Leadsom asked for those in the room who had voted Leave to raise their hands. This was so she could ‘find her friends’. Seriously. In a room full of people under the age of 25, all attending university, and in Scotland, Leadsom grossly misjudged her audience. Perhaps realising her faux-pas, Leadsom optimistically followed up her question by asking, ‘well has anyone changed their opinion since the referendum result?’. I raised my hand, ‘Yes, I’m in fact feeling more pessimistic.’ She just smiled back.
Since Leadsom entered Parliament in 2010 (as MP to South Northamptonshire) her time as an MP has had a consistently eurosceptic flavour. On October 25th 2011, Leadsom was one of the 81 Conservative MPs to defy the party whip and vote in favour for holding the EU referendum. In September 2011 she co-founded the Fresh Start Project, a group that works to ‘research and build support for realistic and far-reaching proposals for reforming the EU’. After holding a number of junior ministerial positions, Leadsom’s current role is as Leader of the House of Commons. Put simply, Leadsom collects the views of the Commons and presents them to Government, and vice-versa in presenting the business of the Government to the Commons. Put really simply, Leadsom has to defend what the government is doing to groups of MPs in the Commons who probably do not agree with what either she, or the Cabinet, is doing with regards to Brexit.
It’s clear that through this role, Leadsom has honed her ability to talk around the question. In fact, it’s possible to leave an encounter with Leadsom feeling as if you’ve been swindled; taken for a ride down a lane of questions with non-answers and semi-relevant tangents. These are delivered with an unchanging smile and just assertively enough that you’re initially convinced. It’s not that Leadsom isn’t eloquent – quite the opposite. In truth, it’s more telling in what Leadsom isn’t saying, than what she is.
When asked whether the voting age should be lowered to 16, Leadsom replied with, ‘My opinion is that I’m firmly on the fence about this.’ When pushed, Leadsom retorted that she did not believe the young to have a ‘well enough informed view’ to vote. Again, Leadsom seemed to have misread her audience. Scotland allowed 16 year olds to vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and the idea has been popular up here ever since. This defence was almost painfully ironic since the round table event had been organised as an attempt to engage Scottish youth.
On returning to the main topic of discussion, the centenary of female suffrage, Leadsom excitedly listed ways in which women have advanced since then. What was top? The fact that ‘we have a queen’. Other examples that followed included having two female Prime Ministers and were so ceremonial that I felt truly unsure if Leadsom knows what women today in the U.K want from a bar of soap. She ended with the trope we hear again and again that, ‘of course there is more to be done’. However with Leadsom’s own experience in childcare policy and young family initiatives, I was surprised she didn’t offer something more insightful.
Again, Leadsom revealed more in words unsaid. When questioned about the Government’s inaction towards the ongoing abuse at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre, Leadsom conceded that she could not offer a solution today but would follow it up because ‘I’m a human being like you and I’m sympathetic to what you are saying.’ Verbatim. Does a sympathetic human being need to say that they’re sympathetic? When speaking more generally about the public’s perception of politicians, Leadsom took a ‘us’ vs ‘them’ approach, claiming that ‘they’ (the public) misunderstand politicians. It almost felt like Leadsom was speaking from a long history of being ‘misunderstood’. (See her comments on employing men as nannies or defending her CV before Parliament.)
After Leadsom left, the person next to me turned and asked, ‘Wasn’t she great?’, ‘Seriously?!’ I answered. ‘No, I meant a great politician.’ And that’s exactly it. Leadsom was a textbook politician. I firmly believe politicians get a hard ride, they’re often not seen as real people. That’s the point of this series. However Leadsom gave so little of herself at a moment that really called for it. Whether she was motivated to improve her Twitter feed or not, Leadsom felt formulaic and repeatedly did not answer the question. She was polite and she listened, but after Leadsom’s swift exit, I was left feeling swindled.
And if you’re curious about how this looked from the other end, here is the casing tweet: https://twitter.com/UKGovScotland/status/974630604028473345