With the first ballot of the Conservative leadership race taking place over the course of Tuesday, it is looking increasingly likely that the final two candidates which party members will get to choose between will be Home Secretary Theresa May, and energy minister Andrea Leadsom.
With Theresa May being one of the most high profile politicians in the UK, albeit one who took somewhat of a backseat during the referendum campaign, it is no surprise that she is a frontrunner for the party leadership. Likewise Michael Gove, Stephen Crabb, and Liam Fox have all spent time in the Cabinet, and although less experienced than May at least have some tangible experience of government from which to draw. As for Leadsom, she has served in junior ministerial positions in the Treasury and the Energy Department but has never held a Cabinet position. Indeed few people had heard of her before she took centre stage during the two main televised Brexit debates. Rarely has someone with less experience stood a real chance of becoming Prime Minister so early in their political career. Leadsom was only elected to the House of Commons in 2010 making her far and away the least experienced of the five candidates for the leadership.
Not since 1963 have we had a Prime Minister who has not first served as either the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, whoever wins the Conservative leadership election will technically be the least experienced Prime Minister since 1963. However, Theresa May’s six years as Home Secretary easily make her qualified for the role, whilst Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, and Michael Gove have all served at least two years in the Cabinet. Despite this, Andrea Leadsom seems to currently have a better chance than any candidate, bar Theresa May, of being Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister by September. Currently Leadsom stands in second place, behind May, in terms of MPs who have pledged their support to her campaign. If, as expected, Liam Fox is eliminated from the race after Tuesday’s vote, then it would stand to reason that his supporters will gravitate towards supporting Leadsom. This will put Leadsom in pole position to see off the challenges of Michael Gove and Stephen Crabb to take on Theresa May in a ballot of the full party membership.
Current polling suggests that May is the favourite and would comfortably defeat Leadsom in a ballot of the full party membership. However, any full membership vote on the leadership will not take place until September, which gives a significant amount of time for things to change. Being the favourite at an early stage rarely seems to be helpful in party leadership elections. Just ask Boris Johnson and David Miliband and I am sure that they will tell you the same. Therefore, to suggest that Theresa May as our next Prime Minister is a foregone conclusion would be incorrect.
Traditionally the wider Conservative membership has been significantly more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party, and so following the vote to leave the European Union it stands to reason that the Conservative membership would want a leader who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU. With Leadsom boasting the support of influential Eurosceptic figures in the parliamentary party such as Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood, and Steve Baker then it seems that she has a strong chance of being the Leave supporting representative on the final ballot paper. Given the desire of many members that a Leave supporter takes charge of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, this would surely give Leadsom a strong chance of victory. Add to this the fact that Liam Fox is struggling to garner significant support and that Michael Gove will now be forever haunted by his betrayal of Boris Johnson, and Leadsom would seem to be the only viable candidate from the Leave side of the Conservative Party. Therefore, she has an extremely good chance of becoming the next Leader of the Conservative Party and our next Prime Minister.
This surely raises serious questions about the whole process of choosing a leader. Leadsom has very little experience of government with just two junior ministerial roles to her name and no Cabinet experience at all. Surely she is not experienced enough to become Prime Minister. The same could be said of current Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn who had no ministerial experience at all prior to his election as Leader of the Labour Party. However, there is a huge difference in responsibility between becoming Leader of the Opposition and becoming Prime Minister. David Cameron was not particularly experienced when he first became Leader of the Conservative Party. However, his five years as Leader of the Opposition allowed him to gain the requisite experience to serve as Prime Minister upon his election in 2010. Leadsom would not be afforded this luxury and would instead be thrown straight in at the deep end as Prime Minister. She is by no means ready for this. From what I can gather, Leadsom has hardly set the world alight during her time in Parliament thus far. During her stint at the Treasury as City Minister, she was variously described as ‘a disaster’ and ‘the worst minister we’ve ever had’. It is said that this poor spell at the Treasury led to George Osborne blocking a promotion to the Cabinet and requesting Leadsom’s transfer to another department, which culminated in Leadsom becoming a junior minister in the Energy Department. This evidence is hardly a ringing endorsement of her credentials to be our next Prime Minister.
Despite having limited experience within government, Leadsom will likely point to her experience outside of politics as qualifying her for the role of Prime Minister, or in the event of a close loss, then the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Over the course of the EU Referendum and her campaign for the Conservative leadership, Leadsom has made much of her twenty-five years experience in financial services. Some of Leadsom’s claims have suggested that she has experience in finance that would qualify her for the post of Chancellor of Prime Minister due to an understanding of the economy. However, evidence suggests that this is not the case. Robert Stephens, a colleague of Leadsom’s during her ten years at Invesco Perpetual has stated that her role was mostly an administrative role which involved negotiating the pay of senior fund managers, but certainly didn’t involve any actual financial management or economic analysis. Therefore, it is debatable whether Leadsom actually is as qualified as she claims, and her statements risk misleading voters regarding her qualifications for senior governmental posts.
Leadsom becoming our next Prime Minister would also raise serious questions in terms of democracy. I would argue that the overall majority gained by the Conservatives at the 2015 General Election was far more an endorsement of David Cameron as Prime Minister than it was an endorsement of the Conservatives as a governing party. Indeed, much of the post election polling seemed to find that many people preferred policies put forward in the Labour Party’s manifesto yet voted Conservative anyway because they much preferred David Cameron to Ed Miliband, and felt that David Cameron and George Osborne were better placed to manage the economy than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. I would argue that another general election should be held in order to give legitimacy to the new Prime Minister, yet all of the leadership contenders have stated that they will not be doing this. They see the election result as an endorsement of the party rather than David Cameron. Seeing as Theresa May, Michael Gove, and Stephen Crabb all held Cabinet positions at the time of the 2015 General Election then the victory could perhaps be extended to them, and lend them some legitimacy. However, until about a month ago, very few people had actually heard of Leadsom. Therefore, if she were to take office as Prime Minister without first gaining legitimacy through a general election then surely this would be an abuse of democracy?
Ultimately, the problem with Andrea Leadsom becoming Prime Minister is one of experience. How can someone possibly become Prime Minister solely on the back of a couple of moderately successful television appearances talking rubbish about Brexit? It is completely absurd that she is now in this position and that as of the first round of voting, sixty-six Conservative MPs believe that she is the most qualified of the five original leadership candidates to become Prime Minister. What is more worrying is that when the choice of Conservative leader goes to the wider party membership there is a relatively good chance that the Conservative rank-and-file select Leadsom as their favoured candidate rather than May, in large part because Leadsom backed Brexit. This would be a mistake. Her politics aside, Andrea Leadsom does not have the requisite experience to be our next Prime Minister and it is crazy that she has even come under real consideration.