Though ultimately brief, the Conservative Party leadership contest offered fascinating insights into the nature of British politics today. Rhetoric, performance and gender replaced talk of policies and political priorities.
In the end, Theresa May showed that she had a much more powerful grip on the realities of wielding modern political power and will be the UK’s next prime minister. Andrea Leadsom’s inexperience, meanwhile, was exposed in the most public, and almost humiliating manner.
This election was not about the nature of the ship (the British state) nor its direction – because the ship is unstable and the course is uncharted waters – so it has had to be about who was better equipped to be captain.
The contest was therefore about character. And the captain must be a character who is steady, determined and reassuring. In the glare of the public spotlight Leadsom failed on all those fronts. May looked like she was already at the ship’s wheel.
Inevitably the popular press obsessed over perceived parallels with another Tory leader. But when Margaret Thatcher stood, it was in order for the party’s right to oust Ted Heath, and many quietly believed she too would be dispensed with soon after. The debate over whether a woman could be prime minister was a live one then. Now, thankfully, it is not.
There was in fact a sense during this campaign that a woman prime minister might be better suited to these changed times. The boisterous Brexit boys all crashed into each other and fell down after having knocked all the Notting Hill boys over. The last Brexiter standing was a woman, who has now dropped out to leave May on a clear course for Number 10.
Theresa May is viewed to have served well in the tough post of Home Secretary. She has an image as being competent and hardworking – but not dour or unsmiling – and she clearly saw that she needed to perform to that character and build upon it.
At the launch of her campaign, May smiled, joked and laughed. She painted her own portrait according to both the received view (tough, no-nonsense, uninterested in flashy personality politics) and the new appeal to “compassion” and One Nation Conservatism that will be needed in the new Conservative leader. She expanded her character and presented herself as a leader who would also heal and reconcile.
It is clear – both within the party and the country – that the sense of a nation divided is acute. May is evidently aware that unity of some kind needs to be established. She was also transforming her quiet backing for remaining in the EU into Cassandra-like foresight of the impending division – the irony being that the best person now to lead Britain towards leaving is a “remainer”.
May also presents as the serious-minded and dutiful daughter of a modest English Clergyman. This is a strong myth in British society, with its Brontë undertones. And in terms of image it is worth pointing out that this is a much more powerful and intricate myth than being a Clergyman’s son.
Andrea Leadsom, meanwhile, stumbled soon after her campaign took off. It had started well. She seemed more personable than other Brexiteers and May. Her supporters immediately underlined her “steel” and her “compassion” along the same lines as May. They tried to cover for her relative inexperience by referring to Tony Blair as having had no experience before 1997 (perhaps, with the Chilcot report just out though, that was not the best of defences).
But the alleged “bigging up” of Leadsom’s CV (ironically, it is a generally held view that women don’t do this enough compared to men) was a first broadside into her image of representing a new way of doing politics – a widely-held assumption being that women bring honesty and integrity to the dark arts of politics.
The fatal shot, however, was self-inflicted. Leadsom revealed herself to be such a novice as to think that her greatest appeal was as a mother. Her bid was evidently to appeal to the party faithful but ultimately, she had to throw in the towel even before the Conservative party membership could have its say.
It was a catastrophic error to think being a mother would be enough to counter the perception of May as a politician of experience and skill. So, the way to Downing Street is now clear for May – and the days ahead will surely prove a greater test of her qualities than this very short-lived leadership campaign.