In Westminster, the corridors are audibly alive: 24 hours ago MPs took delivery of the Windsor framework, the agreement that is (supposedly) going to fix the problem of the Northern Ireland protocol; listen hard and you can hear the strange sound of those who, having voted leave, are now loudly celebrating the province’s unique access to EU markets. And yes, Andrea Leadsom, arch-leaver and (briefly) business secretary under Boris Johnson, is as thrilled as any of them.
Maybe we should all move to Northern Ireland, I say, rolling my eyes in the hope of impeding her contorted paean of praise to this “fantastic” arrangement. After all, according to Rishi Sunak, it’ll soon be the world’s most exciting economic zone. But she’s impervious to sarcasm. “You can, if you’d like to,” she says. “You absolutely can!” Her tone is enthusiastic to the point of rapture. If she pressed a leaflet into my hand extolling the virtues of Antrim and Newry, I’d hardly be surprised.
She and I are in her Commons office, which comes with framed photographs of the Queen and Mrs Thatcher and a pleasing Yes Minister view of Big Ben. Leadsom is wearing a teal velvet jacket, knee-high boots over trousers and a practised smile; an aide sits beside us. Later, once my tape recorder is no longer running, she will admit to nerves, insisting that a certain interview – the one that immediately preceded her departure from the race to become Conservative party leader in 2016 – brought on a form of PTSD from which she is still recovering. But I’m not sure I believe her, for all that she offers me herbal tea. Would an anxious person make such contradictory and outlandish claims about Brexit so confidently? And would they be so ill-prepared? Either way, the feeling in the room is weirdly pedagogic. She is the headmistress of a small, not-very-good private school and I am a bolshie sixth former, hellbent on effecting change in the common room.
Our meeting is timed to coincide with the publication of a new edition of her recent book, Snakes and Ladders: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Politics, a memoir in which she reveals that Michael Gove is one of Westminster’s biggest and most deadly serpents and that her own tentative first steps upwards (since 2010, she has been the member for South Northamptonshire) were boosted by David Cameron’s A-list of prospective parliamentary candidates, a supportive husband and a nanny. I was slightly dreading reading it, but it’s fascinating. Leadsom isn’t one for revelations: she’s too much of a party creature for that. But she is good at casting shade, not only on Gove, but also on Dominic Cummings, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson. More unwittingly, the book also reveals the markedly high levels of delusion among Tory politicians, herself included. “This is it. I’m going to be prime minister,” she said to her husband, Ben, on making it to the final ballot in the Tory leadership race in 2016. More (or less) amusingly, she was delighted when Theresa May made Johnson foreign secretary: how good to see the new PM rewarding “honour” (it probably helped that the reptilian Gove got nada).
Would the country look different now if she’d become leader? This is a question she likes. “Because it goes to the nub of the book. I’m often asked if I regret withdrawing in 2016 [following an interview in which she said that she was, in effect, better qualified to be PM than May because she had children, she stepped away from the fight] and my answer is always no. Liz Truss’s leadership was short-lived partly because she just didn’t have the support of the party. Even if I’d become leader, there could have been a no-confidence vote almost straight away. The stock markets were down, the pound was down, the country was in significant turmoil.” So how did she feel when Truss, whose politics aren’t dissimilar to her own, crashed and burned? “I think every human being, let alone every MP, would have been thinking: I’m glad that’s not me. But, you know, people make their decisions and decisions have consequences.”
Which brings us to the decision to vote leave and its consequences. Her fellow MP Steve Baker, the so-called hard man of Brexit, has already spoken of the toll the past seven years have taken on his mental health. (In her book, incidentally, Leadsom writes that from the time he resigned from May’s cabinet until Britain left the EU, Baker barely spoke to her, so furious was he that she – then leader of the House of Commons – did not go at the same time.) What price, if any, has she paid? “It has been incredibly difficult,” she says. “I was invited in to look at the Windsor framework in advance and I honestly felt like a cloud had lifted. It was amazing, really. I know there’s plenty of angst, [that people feel] we should have got this five years ago, but the reality is that this is really new. This is brilliant. This is a new lease of the relationship between the EU and the UK.”
Doesn’t she find it even the tiniest bit bizarre that Northern Ireland, which did not vote leave, is now pretty much in the position it was before Brexit? “No, not in the slightest and I’m glad you’re giving me a chance to deal with that. Brexit was about sovereignty, about being in charge of our destiny. We have our independence back, but it’s also great for Northern Ireland because they’ll be the integral, precious part of the United Kingdom they’ve always been and they’ll have favoured access to the EU.” OK, but if this access is so great, why can’t we all have it? “We have a huge opportunity to forge closer links not only with the EU, our traditional strong trading partners, but also with the Commonwealth. We’ve already got free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.”
She sounds – and I tell her so – barking mad. We had close “links” with the EU before Brexit. The freedom to make trade deals has, according to any thinktank you might care to consult, so far made no difference whatsoever to the UK’s ailing economy. But she ignores me, talking instead of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine and asking me whether I’m not delighted that Britain will now be able to benefit from the Horizon Europe scheme (the EU’s flagship scientific research programme). Naturally, I am. However, I’d also like to know if Brexit has yet brought any positive benefits. Could she perhaps name three?
“Well, this is the next chapter in our history,” she says. “And I’d love to see us becoming a global leader in green technologies.” But I’m not talking about the dim and distant future. I’m talking about hard gains, already made. “OK, I’m gonna say we’re already a world leader in finance, but we were subject to EU regulations over financial services and in many cases we disagreed with them. Being out of the EU enables us to lead the world in corporate governance, green mortgages, green funding of infrastructure…” Right. And what’s the second thing on her list? “Well, for many Brexiters, it is about being able to sack your politicians if you don’t agree with them. The reality was that we were subjected to EU directives we disagreed with and UK ministers were powerless to change that.”
So, let’s recap. We might be able to lead the world in corporate governance and we no longer have to abide by EU directives. In a time of rationed tomatoes, endless passport queues and chronic labour shortages, such things do not feel to me to be very tangible in terms of people’s everyday lives. Also, when it comes to sacking politicians, May, Johnson and Truss all became prime minister without being elected. But anyway, let’s have number three. Is there one?
“I do have a huge list, but I think you’ll be quite negative and closed off to my perspective, even though I respect yours.” I promise not to be, Andrea. “So, you know, there is being much more open to the world rather than just to the EU.” Eh? “Students loved Erasmus [an EU education programme] because it enabled them to go to European universities. But the reality was that it was mostly Europeans coming to UK universities because we just don’t have the language skills. Our fault, totally understand. Nevertheless, the Turing scheme [the UK replacement for Erasmus, set up in 2021] opens up the world to our young people. Instead of just learning French or German, they’ll have the opportunity to go to India, Australia, Canada, Nigeria. We’re not turning our back on the EU, we’re opening our face to the rest of the world.”
How to respond to all this? It’s bizarre, this absolute failure to acknowledge that our replacements for those things we have lost are less good – or certainly no better – than what we had before; facts are simply not relevant to her (nonexistent) arguments. I suppose I could ask if she also thinks the moon’s made of green cheese, but the prospect of her answer (“yes, Rachel, it does indeed seem to be made of curds past their sell-by date – but the good news is that we no longer have to follow EU directives on sell-by dates”) makes me feel so weary, I decide to move on.
Leadsom wanted to be an MP from the age of 10 and once she began in earnest to try to make this happen – her first career was in finance – nothing was going to stop her. In 2003, she attended the final round of the selection for Reading West on the day she gave birth to her third child. Her daughter arrived at 2.30am and by teatime, or thereabouts, she and the family (she also has two sons) were in the car. “I think they [the selection panel] thought I was deranged,” she says. “But I’d been through two rounds. They’d whittled us down from 300 to three and I was the only woman. I thought: well, technically, there’s nothing wrong with me.”
Did her husband try to intervene? No, he was right behind her. “Many things you can do alone. But going to a meeting in that state… in this particular scenario, you need a partnership. This actually goes to the heart of being an MP. If a partner is telling you ‘over my dead body’, that is fundamentally a problem. One of the sadnesses in politics is the number of relationship breakdowns.”
Leadsom is “very disappointed” by events in Stafford, where its MP, Theo Clarke, has been deselected by her local association a week after her return from maternity leave. What about in parliament? Are things getting any better there for women? In her book, she describes running from her daughter’s bedside story – she always wore trainers, just in case – when she was required for a vote, but what such a tale misses out is the fact that she could afford a flat in Westminster, not to mention childcare. “Yes, we’re fortunate,” she says. “We had City careers. It is tough if you’re renting a studio flat on parliamentary expenses.” But at least, she goes on, there are fewer late night sittings nowadays; she is proud of the fact that during her tenure as leader of the Commons, she was able to bring in proxy voting, something that enabled Clarke to vote even while on maternity leave.
But the house is not, she agrees, a normal work environment. “Sexual harassment and bullying are separate issues, but they’re lumped together because they’re sort of heinous and awful to experience. Nevertheless, there are about 16,000 people here. They’re entertaining. They’re at late-night debates. They’re under pressure. Some people behave well under pressure and others don’t cope at all.” MPs often lack management skills, she says.
What about the whipping system? Isn’t it rather in tension with the notion of pastoral care? Gavin Williamson was thought to be a very effective chief whip, but he has also been accused of bullying. At the mention of Williamson’s name, Leadsom pulls a grim face, though she will speak only generally about such allegations. “I think it’s very unusual that whips abuse [their position], though if those instances get out, they’re usually pretty awful.”
One thing that her book makes all too apparent – or it did to me – is the sheer churn of government and a consequent glaring lack of expertise; Leadsom has held several ministerial posts, but never stayed anywhere for more than two years. But she thinks I’m wrong. The carousel is a plus: enjoy the ride! “As a minister, you’re more like a judge seeing expert witnesses. My problem is with turnover in the civil service, not in government.” She says they’re far too busy trying to get promoted – which isn’t, of course, at all like politicians.
As for special advisers, AKA spads, “they can be fantastic or they can be really problematic”. Do spads have any real expertise? Lee Cain, later Johnson’s Downing Street director of communications, worked for Leadsom at the Department for Environment and before landing that role, his only claim to fame was that he’d dressed up as a chicken when he was a journalist at the Mirror. “Lee was a great guy,” she says, which is a bit odd. In her book, she writes that she came to despise the “bullying ways” of Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, and that Cain, later his sidekick, was “a man in a hurry” whose desire to curry favour with Downing Street ruthlessly impeded her own work.
I wonder about trust. The most gripping section of her book describes the struggle between Gove and Johnson during the leadership election of 2016 and the former’s betrayal of her. (It’s complicated, but in essence, she seems to believe that Gove used her to stitch up Johnson, who ultimately pulled out of the contest.) Later, she writes that politics at a high level is “just too important for friendship to count”. Leadsom has her faith: she is a Christian; she attends prayer meetings in the Palace of Westminster and even goes on Christian camping holidays. (Of Kate Forbes, the SNP leadership candidate whose relationship with God is causing her a lot of trouble, she says: “She was admirably open and truthful and I think that’s absolutely to be commended; I think good on her.”) But I wonder if it isn’t lonely here. How many pals does she have?
“A small number,” she says. Has the job made her more cynical? “Not much gets past me. I’m never bought by someone saying: aren’t you wonderful? But equally, I try never to be destroyed by someone saying: aren’t you hateful and vile?” She will, she insists, be standing at the next election, which she believes the Conservatives can win (though she won’t be drawn on whether we’ve finally seen the end of Johnson; all she will say is that “Rishi is a great guy”).
Does she have any regrets? For the first time, she hesitates. “Yeah, that’s, uh, you know, I’m definitely always honest… I’m trying to address your question openly. I certainly regret things in my private life. I’ve got a big family and I’m always the one who can’t make something. I suppose I regret not getting further in my leadership campaign. I was determined to become prime minister and deliver Brexit myself.” But never mind: as she has already told me several times, it is here now. At last, we are approaching its famous sunlit uplands. Coming soon: all kinds of stuff.