Melanie McDonagh

The reason Theresa May is the better candidate has nothing to do with motherhood

The reason Theresa May is the better candidate has nothing to do with motherhood
Text settings

Well! It hasn’t taken long for the commentariat to get over their excitement at the prospect of another female prime minster, has it? Can you imagine what the Guardian would be making of it were the contest between Angela and Maria Eagle, Venus and Serena Williams-style (or even, David and Ed Miliband-style)? It’d be triumph for feminism, a belated victory for the kind of positive discrimination gender politics which has proved so terrifically successful in the Labour party.

Well, it turns out that it’s not just a woman that feminists wants, it’s a particular kind of woman. Their kind of woman. No others need pretend to the gender.

The knives, in short are out for Andrea Leadsom. You can see as much in The Times interview with Rachel Sylvester in which she said that having children gave her a 'very real stake' in the next generation, as opposed to Theresa May, who 'possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people'. (Godchildren?). Which duly ended up as the headline, 'Being a mother gives me an edge over May'. Which in turn has led to accusations of gutter journalism on Mrs L’s part and the most almighty row about her judgment. Inevitably the attempt to put things right made things worse: Mrs L’s observation that 'I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be Andrea has children; Theresa doesn’t' may have rubbed salt in the wound.

It’s all a bit unedifying, all a bit not where you want the leadership contest to go. The question was, plainly, an elephant trap, and Mrs Leadsom duly stepped into it. She should have spotted it at a distance.

But I think we want to be clear about why Mrs Leadsom is not the better candidate, which I think stands out a mile. My own declared reason is that her arguments have always been astonishingly thin; her economic policy threadbare, her claim to a philosophy merely being an assertion that we should all be optimistic; her political experience meagre. She was made by the Leave camp’s decision to make her one of their triumvirate (ignore the gendered term) of speakers in the last televised debate, which they undoubtedly thought would play well against the two women, one man, on the Remain side. (I am prepared to bet a proportion of my debts that the women thing entered into their decision about the choice of who should front the arguments.) Mrs Leadsom was ok; no more.

My bad and unspoken reason for not wanting Mrs Leadsom to succeed is that she has rather a tight and unappealing smile. But that’s just me. And I want Theresa May to get it because she’s a vicar’s daughter and, Catholic though I am, I am all for vicar’s daughters. Mrs Leadsom seems a bit unattractively evangelical.

But I think we should finger some of the bad and unappealing reasons why other pundits are gunning for Mrs Leadsom, apart from the unarguable fact she’s right wing. Chief is that she is that she’s opposed to gay marriage. It came up on the BBC coverage when she was first chosen and it has come up endlessly on The Guardian commentary on the leadership. It also featured prominently in coverage of Stephen Crabb’s bid for the top job…was he still opposed to gay marriage (he was asked about it endlessly); and just what kind of Christian is he anyway (see today’s gleeful coverage in the Mirror of his allegedy hypocrisy in flirtatious text to a young woman)?

Theresa May, by comparison, like Sadiq Khan before her, proved her credentials as a serious representative of modern Britain by voting for gay marriage.

The gay marriage question is turning into a kind of litmus test of political acceptability, and that’s wrong, wrong, wrong. It is possible like Mrs Leadsom (and me) to take the view that marriage is an inherently heterosexual institution, being orientated towards children, and yet to support civil partnerships as giving gay couples social recognition and legal protection. This is not a wild or inflammatory view; neither is it prejudiced. It is, in fact, more or less what most people would have felt until about fifteen minutes ago. Yet the gay marriage issue has become a way of weeding out ideological undesirables, as way of blackening reputations, which really stinks. I’m not wearing it myself; no one should.

The other bad reason why the pundits are after Mrs Leadsom is that she, like Stephen Crabb, is a Christian – and what fun people like Marina Hyde have with Mrs Leadsom’s Bible studies. But the reality they’ve got to lump is that both candidates, indeed all the post Boris contenders, are Christians. Live with it! I, personally, am loving it. Best thing about this contest.

But in truth, it shouldn’t have been Mrs Leadsom in the last two candidates at all. Were it not for Michael Gove’s stellar, self-deluding lunacy in knifing Boris Johnson at the very last  minute, Boris Johnson would have been a candidate. Or, if Michael Gove had behaved more decently, and made clear from the outset that he was in the running for the leadership, he could have been in the running himself as a plausible candidate in his own right, rather than being ruled out as a Judas and fratricide. Both Boris and Michael Gove are, by an unimaginable distance, more serious contenders than Andrea Leadsom. But that’s not the choice Tory members are left with.