Andrea Leadsom is a revolutionary, but she has no vision for the future
written for The Guardian, 8th July 2016
Shortly before the EU referendum campaign began in earnest, Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, took a trip to New York. Amid the usual holiday treats – chocolate pizza, reconnections with old friends – they had seats to the hottest cultural ticket in town. Few of the audience members at the Broadway musical Hamilton, a decidedly anti-imperialist hip-hop tribute to a revolutionary American Founding Father, would have expected a visiting British Conservative to share their enthusiasm.
They would be wrong. Few cultural phenomena so encapsulate the 18th-century abstractism at the heart of the leave project – or the meritocratic rhetoric to which Gove’s own fish-guts-to-fine-wines story remains his insistent testament. And few so sharply demonstrate what the libertarian right has so ignominiously lost, as it turns its devotions to Andrea Leadsom, darling of the Ukip funder Arron Banks.
Hamilton, for the uninitiated, charts the rise of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary – a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who helps take America to independence. It is full of warnings that Britain’s foremost leave campaigner should have heeded. “What Comes Next?” muses a bitter George III, in full Jean-Claude Juncker style, “You’re on your own. Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?”
Yet with its celebration of immigrant culture (“We get the job done”) and self-education (“He got a lot farther, by working a lot harder”) Hamilton is a paean to the philosophy of the self-starter so central to Gove’s moral hinterland. It’s hard to imagine Banks and Leadsom snapping their fingers to this predominantly non-white cast’s hip-hop celebration of the contribution of Caribbean immigrants.
Because it is Leadsom, as the new embodiment of the leaver insurgency, who will make the left miss Gove. In the past few days the inconsistencies in Leadsom’s CV have risen to prominent attention, while her 1950s blinkers are the subject of widespread mockery. She can make nice to British Muslims, if it serves her social conservatism: “Take one cup of Anglo-Saxon determination;mix with a jugful of Muslim respect for the family”, reads her blog’s “recipe for a perfect British society”, which suggests Leadsom’s idea of racial typography is something cribbed from Ladybird children’s books.
Michael Gove speaking to the media outside parliament this week after being eliminated from the Conservative leadership race.
Image credit: Hannah Mckay/EPA
What attracts Banks – and his moneybags – is not merely Leadsom’s determination to lead Britain out of the EU, but her mirage of Britain, a mirage painted by regret and powered by resentment. Gove, by contrast, was a Tory moderniser long before it was cool. In 2001 he chafed against Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership of the Conservative party by co-editing A Blue Tomorrow, an influential essay collection that argued for “a Conservatism which is more sensitive to the changing social mores of Britain”.
Leadsom’s blogs are a world away from the artsy liberalism of the Notting Hill set. “Along with ‘normal’ people in this country, I’m sick and tired of political correctness,” reads one. “I want to live in a Britain whose residents are determined to speak English. I want to live in a Britain where there is a shared belief in freedom and democracy, and equal rights for men and women. I want to live in Britain with a sense of humour – where there are no groups whose life choices are ‘above’ criticism.”
What Leadsom and Gove do share is a spirit of Conservatism as radicalism. Gove’s famous call for Tories to be “warriors for the dispossessed” rattles the left – since when, they ask, have Tory economics done anything for the dispossessed? But it’s the word warrior that rattles his fellow Tories. At the heart of the Brexit divide in the Conservative party lay the old Tory fault line dividing the Burkean inertia of paternalism and the trailblazing, state-slashing chaos of the libertarian movement.
The Tory party was once defined by its fear of the French revolution: Gove, was labelled by Cameron “a bit of a Maoist – he believes in a progress through creative destruction”. The Tories who now cluster around Theresa May do so in their yearning for that old Tory failsafe, the conservation of what remains, the salvaging of stability from chaos.
The problem with Leadsom is that she’s a revolutionary with no vision for the future, just a hankering for the past. Her derision for maternity leave is terrifying, her vote against mitochondrial donation – the fertility technique termed “three person babies” by its sensationalist critics – seems Luddite. She is, of course, anti abortion. Despite being a government minister at the time, she promoted the bill on sex-selective abortion proposed by the Tory MP Fiona Bruce – a move that threatened to move the burden of criminality from doctors to pregnant women.
It’s become de rigueur in the past two days to speak of Leadsom as the Tory Jeremy Corbyn. True, her election would represent a hijacking by the Ukip-friendly right, although Tory party members who joined after 10 June will be ineligible to vote, to prevent entryism at its crudest. So the existing Tory membership – blue-rinse bridge players as they may be perceived – have an opportunity to show themselves shrewder than their Labour counterparts and reject the politics of the 1980s.
But whether she wins this leadership battle or not, Leadsom looks to be the leading Eurosceptic voice in the parliamentary party for the foreseeable future. In that role alone, the progressive left will soon find themselves longing for the halcyon days of Gove.