Andrea Leadsom’s decision to withdraw from the Conservative Party leadership contest dramatically concluded the search for Britain’s next Prime Minister. But as Theresa May prepares to enter 10 Downing Street it’s worth reflecting on the levels of scrutiny now facing leading political figures in Britain.
A big factor in Leadsom’s departure from the leadership race appears to have been the reaction to an interview she gave to the Times newspaper. She had controversially suggested that being a mother might give her an edge in becoming Prime Minister over the childless Theresa May. That she was seemingly shocked at the outrage her comments provoked has been taken by many as evidence that she was either naïve, or too thin skinned to be a front line politician.
However, the incident also reveals much about the way contemporary politics is discussed and reported. Leadsom’s attempts to blame the media for the story were unconvincing, yet the coverage of the story was a perfect example of the intense pressures placed on politicians. Any kind of gaffe or perceived blunder has the potential to destroy your career.
Prospective leaders are expected to be statesmanlike but also personable and down-to-earth at the same time. The private lives of politicians are regarded as fair game for commentary in a way which was not the case a few decades ago.
In recent years, we’ve seen David Cameron being called upon to justify his decision to take his family on holiday to Ibiza and former Labour leader Ed Miliband demolished in the press for failing to eat a bacon sandwich with sufficient flair.
Leave it at home, please
Politicians often make reference to their family life to indicate that they understand the challenges ordinary people face on a daily basis. But this is fraught territory too, and many careers have been ended when extra-marital affairs have subsequently been revealed.
Women politicians often face particular challenges when deciding how much to reveal about their personal life.
Theresa May spoke little about not having children before Leadsom brought it up. Then, she revealed in an interview that it had not been a choice. Many articles covering this episode seemed to feel the need to labour this point, as though it could not be acceptable for May to have simply not wanted children. If a woman leader must be childless, let it at least not be through choice.
Those women who do have children are constantly questioned about their ability to balance family and career. And when they are not justifying their reproductive decisions, they are facing detailed scrutiny of their fashion choices – the fixation on Theresa May’s shoes is a case in point.
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only previous woman Prime Minister, had some success in relating “domestic” life to her politics. When opposing demands for higher public expenditure, she would say that, “every good housewife knows you cannot spend more than you can afford”.
However, Thatcher’s political style has long been out of fashion, replaced by the more touchy-feely approach of leaders such as Tony Blair and David Cameron. Both were skilled in avoiding making statements which would give ammunition to the opposition, using rhetoric designed to be inoffensive. That meant home life had to be kept at home – except for photo calls.
It is unclear how far the public really benefits from demanding that political leaders live up to standards which few ordinary people could withstand over an extended period. Leadsom’s brief leadership bid may not be remembered for long, nor will she be the last politician to see their efforts to mix political and personal life fatally backfire.