When Andrea Leadsom told The Times that being a mother gave her the edge on her rival for the Tory party leadership, the childless Theresa May, the general reaction was to suggest that she had made a blunder which made it less likely that she would win.
That response could not be more wrong. Now that The Times has released the transcript and the tape of the interview it is clear that these were measured, calculated answers designed to generate the response they got.
Don’t forget that Leadsom is apparently receiving public relations advice from Lord Bell, who masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s most successful campaigns, and Nick Wood, one of the sharpest political PR men around Westminster. They would not have let her go into this interview without carefully planned answers on this subject.
Her comments clearly indicate that Donald Trump style campaigning – where you can get away with the most extreme, unpleasant and outlandish comments that more establishment candidates would not dare to – has arrived in British politics.
Let’s look at exactly what she said. She started by saying: “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 hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.”
She continued by saying that having children kept her focused. “It means you don’t want a downturn, but, never mind, ten years hence it will be all fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”
She then said: “I think when you are thinking about the issues that other people have you worry about your kids’ exam results, what direction their careers are taking, what we are going to eat on Sunday.”
Two points on this are decisive. First she did not have to make the second half of her statement. She could have closed off the answer by saying that parenthood made no difference to the relative abilities of herself and May to be leaders.
Second, her initial comment that it would be “horrible” to make the distinction between herself and Theresa has no value because she went to do precisely what she said would be “horrible.” It is best to see this as a clever phrasing to allow her to pretend righteous indignation when the story appeared.
So why did she do this?
First, there is the lesson from Donald Trump’s campaign to win the Republican nomination in the United States. His campaign was full of offensive remarks that his rivals were convinced would destroy his support. In fact they seemed to have the opposite effect.
His remarks ensured that he was always in the headlines and, being relatively unknown as a politician, made him the centre of the debate. He came over as a plain-speaking outsider, who represented real people. This is what Mrs Leadsom is trying to do – and making a few remarks about family life won’t do her campaign any harm.
You can be sure that her media-managers will be all too aware of how effective Trump’s campaign and be eager to see how it works in this country.
Second, the row that followed the article and the response of many senior Tories has helped reinforce her chosen image as the outsider. She accused The Times of gutter journalism, helping her to present it as part of an establishment attempt to stop her winning. Likewise those Tories who condemned her could be presented by implication as part of the same attempt to exclude her.
The success of this attempt to create a campaign of the outsider taking on the power of the Westminster elite was demonstrated by the first sentence in the lead story in today’s Sunday Times.
“The Tory establishment launched a concerted attempt to derail Andrea Leadsom’s leadership bid yesterday…..”
There could not be a better way of encapsulating her campaign had her media managers written the headline themselves. This was a triumph by Lord Bell and Mr Wood.
Third, this was a very effective way of deflecting attention away from the questions about her CV, which had dominated newspaper headlines for the previous 48 hours. An argument about her family life is much safer ground than one about her CV, which casts doubts on her integrity.
And finally, this it is a good issue for her in creating her persona with the Tory party members who will have the final vote on the leadership. There is still a significant number who are suspicious of women who do not have children and it will reinforce their determination to support her.
In the short term, this Trump-style strategy seems to have worked extremely. Mrs Leadsom can now present herself as the establishment-persecuted outsider who has a special reason to care about families.
And you can bet that her media advisers will sampling opinion to see how her remarks have gone down with Tory supporters to see if the gains from making strong comments that upset the party hierarchy outweigh the risks.
If they conclude this, watch out for some more of the same.