ANDREA LEADSOM: John Bercow called me a stupid woman and screamed in my face… and that was tame compared to many of the former Speaker’s spittle-feckled tirades
In a very timely insight into the back-stabbing and betrayals that often stain Tory leadership battles, Andrea Leadsom wrote in yesterday’s Daily Mail about her brutal experience as a candidate in 2016. Here in our final extract from her memoir Snakes And Ladders, she tells of other occasions she felt humiliated in the Westminster hothouse.
As I slipped out of the House of Commons chamber, the Speaker muttered: ‘Stupid woman.’ To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that John Bercow had just publicly insulted me, but soon after I returned to my office, a colleague dropped me a note saying he had seen the Speaker mouth those words. What’s more, a constituent of his who’d been watching on TV had called in to report the same thing.
Well! As Leader of the House, I wasn’t about to let this go lightly. I returned to the chamber, went up to Bercow’s chair and told him that an MP had noticed what he’d mouthed at me.
His face contorted with fury as he launched into a stage-whispered rant, saying that he would not be challenged by me, that it was up to him how to manage the chamber and that he would continue to behave as he wished when, in his opinion, the Government had done something wrong.
I asked how he could justify the words he’d used. I challenged him again, but instead of replying, he turned away, leaving me seething.
As I slipped out of the House of Commons chamber, the Speaker muttered: ‘Stupid woman.’ To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that John Bercow had just publicly insulted me
Later that day, as I was about to get into my car, the Speaker suddenly materialised by my side. ‘Ah, good evening, Leader,’ he said. ‘You wanted to speak to me earlier?’
I looked at him in astonishment. ‘Yes, I did, and you shouted in my face, then turned your back on me.’
Well, he said, he was happy to speak to me now – so what was it I wanted to discuss?
Words almost failed me. ‘Well, I wanted to discuss the fact that you mouthed “stupid woman” at me, but actually I now find I have absolutely nothing to say to you.’ And with that I got into my Government car, to the great amusement of the driver.
This episode had a postscript. Some months later, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn mouthed what looked very much like the words ‘stupid woman’ at Theresa May, then Prime Minister.
There was uproar, with the Labour leader insisting he’d said no such thing, and everyone with halfway decent eyesight pointing out that no other interpretation was possible. When MPs called on Corbyn to apologise, the Speaker pitched in. MPs who uttered unwelcome remarks, said Bercow, should apologise for them – though as he hadn’t witnessed Corbyn’s insult, he’d have to be taken at his word.
This gave me just the opening I needed. With the PM’s ready agreement, I called a point of order and asked Bercow why it was that when he himself had called me a stupid woman, he’d never apologised.
The Speaker was momentarily speechless. He stood up, his face turning red. ‘No, no, no, no,’ he spluttered. He obviously didn’t know what to say.
Eventually, he managed: ‘I’ve dealt with that issue separately.’
In fact, all he’d done was to reply to a letter I’d written complaining about the incident – saying he may have been frustrated in the heat of the moment. To this day, however, John Bercow has never apologised. And, as I’ll later recount, his appalling behaviour towards me was by no means an aberration.
It was Theresa May who gave me my first job in the Cabinet – as Environment Secretary. I’d been called in to see her at No 10 when I was at a pretty low ebb, having withdrawn just days before from the Conservative leadership contest. From a two-horse race, there’d been just one candidate left to become PM: Theresa May. Arriving in Downing Street to see her, I examined the portraits hanging in the staircase of all the people who’ve had the honour of serving our country as PM. It was hard not to be conscious that my image could have been up there.
It was Theresa May who gave me my first job in the Cabinet – as Environment Secretary
As I waited in a splendid state room upstairs, I took a quick selfie, which I texted to my husband, with a laughing emoji and the words: ‘This might have been our home.’
Then I was shown into the Cabinet Room to see our new Prime Minister. It was the first time we’d spoken since I’d called her to concede, and I felt quite emotional. ‘I’ll help you in any way I can to deliver on the referendum,’ I told her.
Theresa’s manner in Cabinet, I discovered, was very collegiate. She’d introduce a topic briefly, tell you what she thought, then go around the table allowing everyone to have their say. This felt like a strength at the beginning, but within a year the meetings became too long, and sometimes heated – but actually more often dull.
There were some big characters in the room – David Davis, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon. And as the months passed, I began to feel some of the men were quite overbearing in their attitude towards her.
After the disastrous 2017 General Election that resulted in a hung Parliament, Theresa made me Leader of the House of Commons – not the easiest of tasks during those long days of trying to steer her Brexit withdrawal deal through a hostile Parliament.
The tense atmosphere was exacerbated by the behaviour of the Speaker, who was as capricious as any Roman emperor.
Soon after I became Leader of the House, I was leaving the chamber when I noticed another MP behind me; it was immediately apparent she was in tears. When I asked why, she muttered something about being on the end of a particularly unpleasant jibe from the Speaker.
Later, I’d witness him putting down other colleagues, leaving them angry, humiliated or otherwise upset. For instance, I vividly remember the Speaker snapping at one MP that he was looking even more peculiar than usual.
A number of them approached me to complain about the way they’d been treated. Some he’d clashed with felt he was deliberately never calling on them to speak. Yet according to the rules, the Speaker was responsible for behaviour in the chamber – including, extraordinarily, his own. So I couldn’t complain about his unbelievable rages, nor ask anyone else to step in.
When his manner towards me was particularly intimidating or aggressive, I would simply ignore him – because that was all I could do.
He’d be on his feet, berating me at top volume for anything from policy to procedure, and I’d just smile beatifically then turn to ask the whip at my side if they’d slept well.
This would infuriate Bercow, who’d then become even more aggressive. So I’d ask the whip if he preferred tea or coffee. Yes, OK, it was a petty response, but, bizarrely, there wasn’t much else I could do.
Soon the chamber became an intimidating place in which to ask a question or make an intervention. If your sentence was too long or if you weren’t as succinct as the Speaker considered desirable, you could suddenly find yourself the target of a humiliating taunt.
Clerks were also treated to explosive outbursts. Once, while waiting outside the Speaker’s grand office, I heard swearing and shouting through the door. When a female member of staff emerged, she looked shell-shocked.
Unfortunately, I had to have many meetings with Bercow, as the Leader and the Speaker were supposed to have a fortnightly catch-up about Commons matters. Sometimes he’d be spitting with rage and shouting at me from a distance of three feet: he’d been the Speaker since before I was elected; I didn’t know what I was talking about; I was wet behind the ears; he was in charge, he would decide what happens. On a couple of occasions, I simply walked out.
Following one of these rants, Bercow sent a note round saying I was so difficult to deal with that, in future, he’d have an assistant at our meetings in order to protect himself from me. I laughed. From then on, I took my own senior official with me to meetings – but even with witnesses present, his behaviour was unbelievable. Why did I infuriate the Speaker so much? I think he’d lost the ability to deal with anything other than total compliance and fear – two responses he never got from me.
As we battled to get Brexit through the Commons, there was an almost farcical rate of departures from Government. During 24 turbulent months, 16 Cabinet Ministers handed in their resignations, along with 60 junior Ministers.
My response to this regular drumbeat was to support the PM as much as I could. I felt that was my duty, so long as Theresa remained committed to delivering Brexit.
At the same time, there was never any doubt in my mind that if she stood down, I’d once again stand for leader to deliver Brexit myself. And this time around, I was determined my campaign would be full throttle from the start.
Back in the 2016 leadership contest, other candidates had spent months, even years, working on their campaigns, and I hadn’t.
Indeed, Theresa’s assured performance had shown that if you want to be leader, you can’t simply wake up one day and say: ‘Let’s enter the race.’ You must be prepared. So as far back as September 2017, a group of colleagues and I secretly set up what we called the Forward Look group.
We put in hours of work to draw up everything from a full set of policies to a media strategy and campaign schedule. We even decided on which music we’d play at my campaign launch, and regularly revised my launch speech.
As a member of Theresa’s Cabinet, however, I didn’t feel comfortable professing loyalty to her while pursuing my own campaign. So after the no confidence vote, I told her that if she decided to stand down, I’d be entering the contest to replace her. At the time, it felt wrong to tell any other MPs about my plans, but other would-be candidates were less circumspect. They were already courting potential supporters, which meant I lost the chance to secure a number of votes.
Boris Johnson, then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, leaves Cabinet meeting with Andrea Leadsom, then Leader of the House of Commons, Lord President of the Council, in 2018
The beginning of the end for Theresa came in July 2018, when she called Cabinet at Chequers to approve her EU withdrawal agreement. A group of Cabinet members, including Boris Johnson and David Davis, met the night before. All agreed that while it wasn’t the Brexit we wanted, it was still Brexit, so we would support the PM.
Just a few days later, Davis resigned from the Cabinet. Then Johnson. With hindsight, these departures can be seen as the moment when the desire of some Brexiteers to see Brexit done became an ambition to destabilise the Government to get rid of Theresa and do it themselves.
Despite enormous pressure from other Brexiteers to resign, I remained loyal to Theresa. It was a period of great tension and hostility, when previous friends and good colleagues threw around some pretty spiteful and personal remarks. Loyalties and friendships are so difficult where political priorities are involved.
In the end, the withdrawal agreement came to nothing when the Commons voted in March 2019 to extend our membership of the EU. It was a terrible day for democracy.
Two months later, members of the Cabinet were each given two hours in Downing Street to read through the latest version of the agreement. And that ended up being the final straw for me.
Buried away in the voluminous document was a clause effectively stating that if the House voted for a second referendum, then the Government would bring forward the necessary legislation to facilitate it. This was totally unacceptable.
As our largely Remain Parliament would almost certainly vote for a second referendum, this clause meant that, in my opinion, it was certain to happen. And that could mean the end of Brexit.
What had been the point of the past two years if we were going to give up now? I knew I’d have to resign. When I phoned Theresa to explain why, she said: ‘Let me go away and talk to others about this.’ This seemed astonishing. Surely she must be aware of the impact of the clause!
In a sense, my departure was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Two days later, the PM announced she was stepping down.
I think history will be kinder to Theresa than her colleagues and the media were at the time. By the end, she was exhausted – as we all were. Exhausted by the rage from MPs, from our constituents, from everyone, Leave and Remain, who thought they were being betrayed.
I admired her determination to do the job properly in the face of a truly impossible situation in Parliament. At all times she was willing to talk: to her Cabinet, to the (hard Brexit) European Research Group, to the DUP, to the Leader of the Opposition, Brussels – anyone, if it would help her find a way through.
Her failure was never about a lack of commitment. Indeed, it was her careful, methodical work and patient willingness to negotiate that achieved 75 per cent of the Brexit deal which meant that when Boris Johnson became PM, he was able to walk in, restructure certain key elements and get Brexit done.
As for me, I’d started reaching out openly to colleagues just a few weeks before my resignation, but it was too late. I was entering what was already a crowded race, with most potential supporters already aligned to other candidates.
Even people who’d been urging me for months to stand were no longer interested. There was lots of ‘Sorry, I’ve already pledged to support Jeremy’, or ‘Saj is an old friend’, or ‘I’ve already committed to Gove’, or, most often, ‘Boris is the only one who can deliver Brexit’.
This was, of course, painful on a personal level. These were MPs I considered to be allies, friends even. A number never returned my calls and texts, including several Cabinet colleagues with whom I thought I had a good relationship.
Again, the lesson of politics at the highest level is that it overrides normal friendships and loyalties. Another is that there are few second chances, particularly when it comes to a tilt at the top job.
On July 24, 2019, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Soon afterwards, he made me Business Secretary – a role that brought me into contact with his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.
I didn’t take to him. There were certain policy issues on which he had strong views, and a number of these fell under my remit, including executive pay, science funding and space technology. Yet he’d go directly to the Civil Service teams, instructing them to do what he wanted.
In my experience, Dom’s approach was to bully, not to lead. And I can’t stand bullying.
So I’d ask my officials not to respond to his aggressive demands, assuring them: ‘I’ll speak to him.’ And that set us up for a number of confrontations.
In private, I thought of Dom as a bit like the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings: if his gaze fell on your particular policy area, it was in trouble. One conflict, for example, was over his desire to create a research agency providing billions of pounds for scientific projects. There was just one problem: Dom wanted to set up this new fund without any checks and balances.
I could see, of course, that ‘no strings’ would be a superb way to free brilliant scientists and inventors to create new ideas. But value for taxpayers’ money is at the heart of all government expenditure, so I insisted on a proper audit trail. This became a sore point with Dom, who was becoming a feared figure in Whitehall, open in his apparent contempt for elected MPs.
At the same time, I was falling out of favour with the Head of No 10 Communications, Lee Cain, who’d once been my own special adviser. It soon became apparent that being in No 10, his dream job, gave Lee a powerful stick – and he wasted no time in wielding it.
One day, I was due to deliver a market-sensitive statement to the Commons at 5pm about the foreign takeover of a defence company. I’d informed Downing Street and got the go-ahead. Then, at 4.50pm Lee called to say: ‘You have to pull the announcement.’
I told him this was impossible: a couple of defence journalists had already been briefed to expect an announcement, and any delay could have an impact on the share price. Lee’s response was furious – he ordered me to stop the announcement, then hung up on me. Pretty much from then on, my relations with Lee and Dom were poor. As someone in the know confided to me afterwards, they both told Boris: ‘You have to get rid of Leadsom.’
Having upset this powerful duo, I probably should have realised that my days in Government were numbered.
The end came on reshuffle day in February 2020, when I was called to the Prime Minister’s Commons office (never a good sign). Boris came straight to the point: ‘You’ve been in Government for a long time, and you’ve had a really good innings, and now I would like you to take a step back for a while.’
For me, there was no choice but to take this crushing blow on the chin. Yet to this day, it still feels extraordinary that I was sent to the back benches at a time I was making fast and positive progress in many areas.
Politics, of course, is a giant game of snakes and ladders, and it was my turn to tumble back down to the bottom of the board. It was a horribly public and painful experience.
Ironically, only a few months later, it was Dom’s and then Lee’s turn to slide down that snake, and both left No 10 under a cloud.
Before I left Boris’s office, there was one thing I wanted as my price for stepping down with good grace. I asked Boris to make me his special adviser on early years – to let me pursue my passion for ensuring every baby gets the best start. ‘Yes, you can definitely do that,’ he said.
Nearly a month later, nothing had happened. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.
As a departing Cabinet Minister, I was due to give a personal statement shortly to the Commons. Yes, that would do nicely.
I approached the Chief Whip. ‘Look, just to warn you,’ I told him, ‘I’ve written two versions of my personal statement. One is light-hearted. The other points out: “I was promised I could take forward my early-years agenda. Several weeks on, why has nothing happened?” ’
I later discovered that the Chief Whip had informed Boris I’d be making my personal statement that day. ‘You may not like what she has to say. She’s saying she isn’t getting anywhere with the promise she could be your early-years adviser.’
At which Boris apparently leapt to his feet, saying he’d made me a promise and it had to be fulfilled.
Sure enough, later that morning I received a phone call from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, saying: ‘It’s fantastic you’re going to be doing this early-years development review. How can I help?’
With that sorted, I was delighted to give a light-hearted personal statement, instead of the rebuke I’d been fully prepared to give.
Since July 2020, I’ve been the Government’s early-years healthy development adviser This work has been the greatest privilege of my career. It’s only after tumbling down a snake that you find your way to the next ladder. Who knows where the next roll of the dice will take me?
© Andrea Leadsom 2022
lAdapted from Snakes And Ladders, by Andrea Leadsom, published by Biteback on Tuesday at £20. To order a copy for £18, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before July 23. Free UK p&p on orders over £20.
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