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Whichever Way I Look at It, I Cannot See the Case for Andrea Leadsom - I'm for Theresa May, All the Way

10/07/2016 22:45 | Updated 10 July 2016
Toby Melville / Reuters

Let me be very clear: this is not an "attack" on Andrea Leadsom. It is instead an expression of my genuine, head-scratching puzzlement. Profound puzzlement. Perhaps I'd go as far as to say bewilderment. And I am sincerely looking for an answer, if there is one.

I am puzzled as to why and how Andrea Leadsom has ended up in the final two, and how it was she secured such passionate support from 84 Conservative Members of Parliament, some of whom are my friends or people I respect enormously. I am puzzled as to why two former Conservative Party leaders, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith, are backing her. I am puzzled as to why she had the naivity, or chutzpah, or hubris, whichever it was, to even run at this stage. And I am very puzzled by the bizarre protest march in her support, of the kind which activists for single-issue causes conduct and which have their place (I have participated in many for human rights in Burma and North Korea), but which seems adolescent and out-of-place when electing a country's Prime Minister.

I have asked people this question, and most of the time the answer comes back: "She's a lovely, warm person." I am sure she is, but since when did being a nice person qualify you to become Prime Minister? I know plenty of lovely, warm people but I wouldn't necessarily recommend them as candidates to run the country.

Over the weekend, she introduced her second policy, after being "lovely and warm", and that's being a mother. Well, my mother is a mother: if that's the only qualification needed, I'll propose her for Prime Minister. Her comments in relation to Theresa May were extraordinary - and opened up a huge row. I personally don't believe they were intended to be as nasty as they appeared - it was a case of absurd naivity rather than malice because, after all, everyone says Mrs Leadsom is "lovely". But naivity is surely a serious disqualification for being Prime Minister in the world today? And she further confirmed her naivity by denying her own words, and blaming the media, even though the transcript showed that the reports were accurate.

The other, persistent answer is: "It must be a Brexiteer". I disagree, very profoundly. I agree with Stephen Crabb, who said that if we persist in using the labels "Remain" and "Leave" within the Conservative Party, we may split the party irrevocably. It is time to move on, beyond the referendum. A majority voted for Brexit, and that result must - and will - be respected and turned into action. The United Kingdom will leave the European Union. We all accept that. As William Hague said, we are all leavers now.

To qualify that, of course it was understandable - though deeply sad - that David Cameron felt he had to resign. To lead the campaign for Remain as passionately and vigorously as he did of course made it impossible for him to lead our exit. And of course it would be almost impossible for a passionate Europhile - a Kenneth Clarke, Chris Patten or Michael Heseltine - to lead us at this time. That I accept. But there were people who supported Remain but with reluctance, without enthusiasm, and such people are perfectly well positioned to implement the Brexit result.

Three qualities are needed in a Prime Minister at this time more than anything else.

First, the ability to unite the party and the country.

Second, the ability to negotiate the terms of our exit from the EU effectively, and secure the best deal for Britain.

And third, an ability to recognise that, significant though it certainly is, Brexit is not all there is to governing Britain.

The new Prime Minister needs to be equipped to deal with Putin, Syria, ISIS' global threat, Xi Jinping's China and other global challenges as and when they arise, to represent Britain on the world stage, to stand tall alongside other heads of state and heads of government, and to protect Britain from terrorist threats, deal with home-grown extremism, strengthen our public services, guide the economy through what may likely be turbulent times, and work to keep our Union in these islands together. These are no small tasks. So I am surprised when Mrs Leadsom's campaign manager Tim Loughton MP - whose keen and outspoken support of human rights in Tibet I admire very much - says so easily of her: "Prime Minister? No problem."

Mrs Leadsom's inexperience is a problem, as Amber Rudd has pointed out, and it worries me profoundly. She has never sat in Cabinet. She has never taken tough decisions for the nation. She has only been a junior minister for two years. These are serious times. The nation has just undergone a major shock, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, and is embarking on a period of change which again, whatever the merits and challenges, will be turbulent. Now is not the time for a novice. When a learner driver almost crashes the car, it is time for an experienced driver to take over the wheel and avoid a pile-up.

The argument that David Cameron had no government experience before becoming Prime Minister is banal. He was in Opposition. He had five years to prepare. Whoever is elected in September becomes Prime Minister immediately. If we were in Opposition, it might be different, but we are in government and we need an experienced hand to steady the ship.

I met Mrs Leadsom once, soon after she was elected to Parliament and before she became an MP. I went to see her, to try to interest her in the issues I work on: international human rights, the persecution of Christians around the world and freedom of religion or belief for all. I can confirm what everyone who has met her tells me: she is lovely, warm, friendly. But I left that meeting disappointed, feeling I had wasted my time. She essentially told me, in her lovely, warm way, that these were not issues that interested her or that she wished to engage with in her parliamentary career. Yet as Prime Minister, she will need to understand international affairs beyond simply a detailed knowledge of the EU, some financial and energy matters, and village life in Northamptonshire, or in Oxfordshire where she previously served as a councillor. Does her suggestion that she will "absolutely" tell Vladimir Putin that "he needs to abide by international law" sound plausible? Is Mr Putin likely to listen to Mrs Leadsom and say "oh okay, all right then, if you say so"? Unlikely, to put it as a typically English understatement.

Lastly, there are four other things about Mrs Leadsom that trouble me considerably. Her CV appears to be unravelling - or at least is now seriously questioned. Her financial affairs and her hitherto refusal to publish her tax returns are concerning. Her reported desire to scrap the minimum wage and maternity and paternity rights is alarming. And she is backed by UKIP and Britain First. No one would remotely suggest that she shares Britain First's far-right fascist agenda, nor even necessarily Nigel Farage's Little Englanderism, but to attract such backers is worrying - particularly at a time when racial hate crimes have increased significantly - and to fail, seemingly, to repudiate them, denounce them and reject their support is dangerous.

There is talk of Mrs Leadsom being the new Margaret Thatcher. A more accurate, though not exact, comparison is that in some way she could be a strange combination of Britain's Sarah Palin and the Right's Jeremy Corbyn, combining an ugly appeal to populism with a decent but naïve inexperience. If the Conservative Party in the country choose Mrs Leadsom, they will inflict on the parliamentary party a leader whom the overwhelming majority of its MPs do not support - a very similar scenario to the Labour Party's. And that cannot be good for the country.

For all these reasons, I could never vote for Mrs Leadsom, and I question why 84 MPs did. I question why no one has been able to give me a reason why she should be Prime Minister other than that she is "warm and compassionate", "the real deal" and has "25 years in business and running charities". I know many people who fit those three descriptions, but I wouldn't propose them as Prime Minister.

I bear Mrs Leadsom no ill-will at all. She is a "very committed" Christian and so am I, so I don't like to feel so opposed to her candidacy - though, oddly, she told the Daily Telegraph she is not a "regular" at church and she prays primarily "for support". I would rather she prayed for the country, the state of the world, the poor, victims of war, refugees, the persecuted and marginalised. For the sake of the party and the country, I pray that her prayers for support are not answered. A job in Cabinet maybe; running the country no.

There is an argument for fresh vision, for ideas, for new thinking. But at this rocky time for our country, that should be coupled with experience. There was, for me, a far, far stronger case for Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Stephen Crabb, all of whom would have coupled experience with radical thought. Mr Crabb was rejected on the basis that it might not be quite his time yet - surely further reason not to choose Mrs Leadsom either (though he now faces further difficulties of his own as reported over the weekend). And both Dr Fox and Mr Gove were, sadly, rejected for perceived momentary lapses of judgment on their part - the Adam Werritty case for Dr Fox, and his withdrawal from Boris Johnson for Mr Gove. Personally, I hope history will judge them all fairly, be forgiving of their errors of judgment or mishandling of situations, and give them senior positions in government, for their intellect and ideas are needed. I also hope in time we will come to thank Mr Gove for acting as he described, out of conviction and principle, and honourably saving the country from the disaster that would have been Boris. But whichever way I look at it, I cannot see the case for Mrs Leadsom to run the country now.

That our next Prime Minister should be Theresa May is a no-brainer. She has the proven experience, the ability to unite us, the strength to negotiate the best deal for Britain in exiting the EU, the commitment to One Nation Conservatism and social justice that is needed, and the character to stand tall on the world stage among other world leaders. I'm for Mrs May - all the way.

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