Well, it’s official now. Britain’s next Prime Minister will be a woman – and it’s got sod all to do with women-only shortlists. The elimination of Michael Gove from the Tory leadership contest yesterday was the price he paid for his backstabbing binge of the past few months, and few tears will be shed by the fact that the Golem of the Notting Hill Tories will not get the job he’s spent years denying he wanted after all.
So, it’s down to a two-way tie between a woman who has been entombed at the Home Office for six years and a woman who has only been in Westminster for the same period, one that few had heard of when she shared a podium with Boris during one of the EU Referendum TV debates. Conservative MPs gave Theresa May a large thumbs-up yesterday, with 60% support; but the decision ultimately rests with the Tory Party membership; and what happened when the Labour membership chose their leader last year proves that it pays not to make lazy assumptions about foregone conclusions.
Anyone old enough to remember 1990 will recall how John Major, despite brief stints as both Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, was still relatively unknown to the general public when he overtook odds-on favourite Michael Heseltine to succeed Margaret Thatcher. Theresa May has been a familiar face on the Tory frontbench for a good decade, but to imagine either that fact or her longevity as Home Secretary means she’ll be packing away her Christian Rock CDs in preparation for sticking them on the No.10 sound-system in the autumn would certainly be tempting fate.
Appointed Home Secretary for the Coalition Government in 2010, Theresa May impressed when she addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers and basically told one of the most inept and corrupt public services to put its house in order or else the Government would do it for them. But her time at the Home Office has largely been characterised by a failure to reduce immigration, an increase in the surveillance state, a willingness to curtail civil liberties, and endless extensions of anti-terrorism legislation that often place free speech and the right to criticise the Government of the day in peril. She is not a gifted public speaker, nor does she exude much in the way of charisma or force of personality; but the very absence of these particular skills leads some to believe she may possess that most cherished of prime ministerial attributes when the nation is experiencing a degree of turmoil, ‘a safe pair of hands’.
And of what of her opponent? Andrea Leadsom is such an unknown quantity that I had to check I’d spelt her name correctly when typing this. Apparently, she’s Energy Minister, though that post doesn’t come with a seat at the Cabinet table. Constantly reminding everyone on television that she had a life outside of politics before entering Parliament doesn’t necessarily make her any more credible than May in that this life was largely spent in banking, possibly the only profession ranking lower in the public estimation than politics. She is, however, playing a canny game by pointing to that pre-political existence as proof of her anti-elite credentials, something that counts for a lot after six years of the country being ruled by an Old Etonian PM; and she was of course one of the prominent Brexiteers, another factor in her favour.
Were she to simply become Tory leader, her lack of experience in high office could perhaps be something that wouldn’t act as an obstacle; neither Blair nor Cameron had any at all when they were elected leaders of their respective parties. But, lest we forget, whoever wins this contest also becomes Prime Minister. Just as well a General Election isn’t required to decide the outcome, for wooing the Conservative Party membership would seem a far easier job than wooing the entire electorate; after all, there’s only around 150,000 of them – the majority being middle-aged, middle-class and male; and most have been waiting for a woman to lead them out of the wilderness for a quarter-of-a century.
Leadsom’s positive polling amongst this group is unsurprising. By Conservative standards, May represents liberalism, whereas Leadsom has a potentially stronger appeal in the shires because she holds traditional Tory opinions on certain subjects, such as fox-hunting and gay marriage (a vote she abstained on in Parliament).
Regardless of her six years as Home Secretary, Theresa May – along with her rival for the job – now has to endure exhaustive press intrusion into her private and personal life that simply doesn’t apply to other ministerial posts. The media scrutiny will also have the time to dig deep, for the result of this contest won’t be announced until September, as neither the Government nor Parliament seem to appreciate a summer break might just have to be sacrificed this year on account of the exceptional mess the outgoing PM has left his successor to sort out. I guess I could end by saying ‘May the best woman win’; but that might be misinterpreted…
© The Editor