THE ONE-WOMAN SHOW

MayAs much as we all love it, rarely has the print media appeared more obsolete than in the past couple of weeks; it doesn’t need falling sales to put it out of business, merely a remarkably fast-moving political apocalypse of the kind this country is currently experiencing. ‘Breaking News’, a normally annoying phrase we’re accustomed to being a permanent fixture at the bottom of the screen of rolling news channels, has now become relevant to every bloody headline as the fallout from Brexit continues to claim scalps on what feels like an hourly basis. All of this would make a cracking edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ if we had any contemporary Rock n Roll to serve as the soundtrack to events.

With Angela Eagle confirming she will mount a leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn over the weekend, this morning’s official announcement of that kamikaze gamble has already been usurped by the far more unexpected announcement by Andrea Leadsom that she has withdrawn from the race to become the next Tory Party leader and, consequently, Prime Minister. Apparently, off-the-record she hinted that press intrusion into both her private life and past working life motivated her decision, yet perhaps this itself is reflective of her lack of experience in the public eye. It does, as they say, come with the territory; and she simply wasn’t up to the job if her silly ‘mother’ comment was anything to go by.

So, this means there is no longer a contest. The prospect of May and Leadsom dragging all of this out for another couple of months while the nation is doing a good impression of the archetypal headless chicken sounded ridiculous on paper, and we must at least be grateful to Leadsom for bowing out even before she and her rival have embarked upon a tour of the Shires. One can only assume Dave’s summer as a lame-duck PM will be considerably shorter than he anticipated in the wake of this development, and I guess he and Sam will have to begin packing their belongings long before September; mind you, going by his past absent-mindedness, Theresa May could well move in and find she’s got a child after all.

Much has been made by May’s supporters that her six years at the Home Office somehow represent success, though how many years did ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ run on TV, masquerading as a sitcom despite the notable absence of laugh-out loud moments? Longevity does not necessarily equate with achievement; and Theresa May’s achievements as Home Secretary are fairly threadbare. Whereas Andrea Leadsom appeals to many of that dying breed of old-school, golf-club, Nimby ‘Margot and Jerry’ Tories, Theresa May is regarded as dangerously liberal within such circles; but, as with Labour’s hardcore lefty Corbynistas, they are a small cult faction forming a minor part of a far broader network, and can never truly represent their party as a whole, never mind the nation. Like it or not, Theresa May is more in tune with the wider electorate than Andrea Leadsom would have been on subjects other than Brexit; and it is the wider electorate beyond partisan party activists that win General Elections.

As if to underline the ultimate powerlessness of party memberships, Leadsom’s withdrawal means that the new Prime Minister has been elected by a few hundred Conservative MPs as opposed to the similarly limited albeit slightly higher 150,000 Conservative Party Members. Theresa May indicated from the moment she announced she was standing to be Tory leader that she had no plans to call an Election in the autumn; but history rarely favours Prime Ministers who supersede retiring PMs without the electorate being involved. Neville Chamberlain, Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown all came to power this way and all failed to win a General Election; poor old Chamberlain actually never got the chance to do so. Yes, both Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan did gain a mandate from the public – the former called an Election only a month after succeeding Churchill in 1955, whereas the latter waited just over two-and-a-half years before going to the country; but both were fortunate to be competing against a deeply divided Labour Party. Theresa May take note.

It is ironic in a week that has seen several MPs on both sides of the House calling for the head of Tony Blair on a plate that the soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister David Cameron is facing no such demands. Watching him perform at his first post-Referendum PMQs, one would imagine he was a stand-up comic ala Michael McIntyre. There was nothing in his demeanour to suggest shame or regret at the absolute bloody mess he’s left the country in. If anyone should be held responsible for the current chaos, Dave is the man. All the fawning guff spewing forth from the mouths of Tory MPs concerning his six years at No.10 obscures the facts in a virtual whitewash of sanctimonious hyperbolic bullshit. Cameron has been an unmitigated disaster. From food banks and tax evasion to the EU Referendum and the impending, unavoidable split with Scotland, Dave hasn’t merely been managing decline; he has done his utmost to accelerate it. Theresa may not be the solution; but she surely couldn’t do any worse.

© The Editor

THE MOTHER OF ALL EXPECTATIONS

PollardThe comment ‘allegedly’ made by prospective PM Andrea Leadsom that she has some sort of moral edge over her Tory leadership rival Theresa May on account of her being a mother and May not being one was quickly rubbished by Leadsom following its appearance in a Times headline; but many women will have understood the sentiments implicit in the comment. There is a particularly smug school of female thought that regards a woman as somehow incomplete if she hasn’t given birth. The woman who hasn’t done so due to biological deficiencies is patronisingly pitied – which won’t make her feel any better – whereas the woman who has deliberately chosen not to populate the planet with offspring is viewed with suspicion and regarded as a virtual social pariah.

There are few cliques more intimidating to a young woman than the motherhood club, especially when those who have recently joined are so vocal in their praise of it. What takes aback those who are unqualified to join is the dramatic alteration in women who previously had a wide range of interests and conversational topics suddenly being reduced to baby bores. They spurn old friendships and instinctively gravitate towards those who share their new solitary passion; and on the odd occasions they find themselves in the company of women outside of the Masonic motherhood, they assume a photo gallery of their beloved sprog is as great a source of fascination to their unfortunate companions as it is to them.

The women’s movement spent decades deconstructing the ancient stereotypes of the female sex, yet the pressures upon today’s women to blend the old roles with new ones in the form of multitasking – career and family, not one or the other – means motherhood cannot be avoided as an issue; even when a career has taken precedence, there is the assumption that a family will still come, albeit a little later than expected.

Pop culture heroines laughingly labelled ‘feminist’ like Bridget Jones have also served to reinforce archaic attitudes, almost as though there was a conspiracy afoot to put women back in their place. Granted, the whole movement did suffer from poor PR for quite a while, giving the impression that all women interested in improving their lot were a bunch of short-haired and humourless butch dykes in dungarees; but an overtly feminine reaction to that misconception was inevitable, and with it came celebrity mothers wearing their children as fashion accessories.

A smart, sexy and witty woman in the public eye such as TV historian Lucy Worsley has had her stated choice not to have children added to her evident eccentricities by a press that still cannot understand a woman who doesn’t have childlessness thrust upon her, but makes that decision of her own volition. Worsley’s response is to claim she has been ‘educated out of the normal reproductive function’ – a shrewd statement worded in a way guaranteed to wind up those who view Worsley’s personal choice as an unnatural affectation. The prevailing belief amongst some is that childlessness, as with death, is something that belongs in the hands of a higher power and not the individual it affects; it should visit without receiving an invitation, and its appearance should always be unwelcome.

Quite how childlessness can be regarded as an impediment to a successful career as a woman MP seems illogical to me. Traditionally, the long hours in Parliament and the late-night debates were always more of a problem for the female faculty at Westminster than the male one; and even though these traditions have been modified in recent years, the workload of any Cabinet MP who has both the business of high office and their constituency to cope with could hardly be helped by also having to fulfil the role of mother, a role which is bound to be rendered part-time. One would imagine not having that additional burden would be an advantage.

Andrea Leadsom’s mother boast, in a similar vein to Sadiq Khan’s ‘my old man’s a bus-driver’ routine, is about as relevant to her bid for the premiership as Sarah Palin’s ‘soccer mom’ cobblers was to her bid for the US Vice-Presidency; by falling back on such clichés, she undermines the efforts of other women in her position to be looked upon as equal to their male colleagues and not to be made a ‘special case’ of. Both she and Theresa May got where they are today without the condescending leg-up of all-women shortlists, so why feel the need to emphasise a specifically female trait? Do male MPs make a big deal about being fathers?

Andrea Leadsom’s comment – one she denied, yet the released recording appears to confirm it – smacks of the inexperience in dealing with the media that the rival Conservative camp are employing as one of many sticks with which to beat her. Granted, there are numerous MPs of many years’ standing who suffer from slip-of-the tongue syndrome – Ken Clarke is a still-active veteran of it; but what should be a positive development, that of two women running for the country’s top job, being currently dominated by an argument over whether or not one contender is more valid than the other simply because she has children is a rather depressing debate of a kind we should have left behind by now. It shouldn’t be a barrier to becoming PM; after all, there was no Mrs Heath for Ted to parade before the press, and her absence didn’t damage his chances.

© The Editor

WOMAN’S HOUR

Minnie & EnaWell, 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