Having a Cuppa with the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP by Lena Davis…
There are rare moments in TV history when a star is born. It happened to Keeley Hawes in “Line of Duty”; to Suranne Jones in “Doctor Foster” – and to Andrea Leadsom during BBC’s two hour TV debate on the EU Referendum. Her co-stars Gisela Stuart and Boris Johnson could certainly have been contenders for best supporting artistes, but it was Andrea’s star that shone.
Many think this was the moment that swung it for the Exit Vote. It is probably despite, rather than because, of this that Andrea was soon elevated to the Cabinet and then bestrode her current position as Leader of the House of Commons.
Thankfully, despite the present turmoil, Andrea has just kept on doing what she does best. A superb Leader of the House of Commons, whilst, at the same time, being an equally superb Constituency MP.
I’ve known Andrea for many years, even before she became an MP. As a friend, supporter and, now, Patron of the Caring & Sharing Trust we share our concerns for the welfare and support of people with learning disabilities and vulnerable people generally. It is also worth noting that she can be as silly as the rest of us and joins in enthusiastically with the singing, dancing and laughter that plays such an intrinsic part in the lives of people with learning disability at the Trust’s base in Cogenhoe.
So, yes, I know her so well. When Andrea dropped in recently for a cuppa we got chatting and…
Lena: Although we are all very proud you are Leader of the House of Commons, I’m yet to meet anyone who knows exactly what that means! Is it possible to tell me in a few words?
Andrea: It means that I’m Parliament’s representative in Government and Government Representative in Parliament. So it is a bit of a diplomatic role because I try to take into account the views of all members across the House and at the same time explain the Government’s priorities in the House. The day job is extremely varied as it is my responsibility to get all of the Government’s business through the House which can include the entire Queen’s Speech, all of the Bills, the secondary legislation, all of the debates. These are scheduled by the business managers which is the Whips Office and the Leaders Office. In addition, every Thursday, I answer questions from all members across the House on any subject under the sun. So I spend a lot of time being a bit of a geek and finding out the latest statistics, consultations, policies and all that sort of thing so I can answer questions.
Lena: Wow! Well, what was it you did recently which made headlines when the Speaker, John Bercow, threw his toys out of the pram?
Andrea: He was very upset, as I understand it, because, the Government tabled a statement, which it does on most days, but not normally on oppositions days which fall on a Wednesday. However, this one statement was marked sensitive and therefore had to be made on that very day, so we had no choice. Nevertheless, it appears to have been extremely upsetting to the Speaker!
Lena: Most people know who you are Andrea, because they remember the brilliant way you and Labour’s Gisela Stuart handled the TV Brexit debate. Are you still in touch with Gisela?
Andrea: Of course Gisela stood down as a Labour MP before the last election but, strangely enough, I bumped into her just a couple of weeks ago. It was fantastic to catch up and I have a photo I must show you! (Andrea gets out her phone to show Lena the photograph).
Lena: That’s great. Can we copy it and use it?
Andrea: Yes, I’ll send it to your phone right now.
Lena: Most people have heard of you and yet most people haven’t heard of most politicians! Seems to me you have managed to do this by staying resolutely good humoured and with a public face.
Andrea: I’m just wanting to see a better future for our country. That’s what took me into politics. That’s what drives me on. I always said I had my three B’s which was Brussels, Banks and Babies. Those were the three things I really wanted to sort out. Brussels, I don’t think needs any more comment. Banks – I think there’s still a huge amount of reform to be done in the financial services sector, an area I was working in for twenty-five years before being an MP.
Then babies is my real passion which is to really significantly improve the support that we provide in the earliest years. Basically from conception to age two to make sure that every baby gets the best start in life. Your emotional capacity is largely determined by the age of two and I genuinely think that a lot of the self-harming, the mental health problems, the depression and the homelessness that we see and the violence that we see stem from poor, insecure early attachment. So I believe there is a lot more that we can and should be doing to turn that around.
Lena: Do you regret the disappearance of such initiatives as Sure Start?
Andrea: I think Sure Starts were a superb idea and what I would like to see is for them to be re-launched to focus on the peri-natal period. That’s something I make no secret of and raise it at every opportunity I get within Government and within Cabinet.
Lena: You, of course, have a family yourself. Your husband, I believe, is a great support of Northampton’s Hope Centre and homelessness in general and the Hope Centre is the Mayor’s Charity this year. And your children?
Andrea: My husband is Vice-Chairman of the Hope Centre and we all as a family are so committed to really tackling, first of all why do people become homeless, which takes me back to the babies interest and then of course to helping people turn around their lives and so often once you become homeless it is so difficult to get your life back on track. So that is really important. As to my kids – I have two boys at university and one is about to graduate. My daughter will be starting the GCSE courses next year so she’s a bit younger but we’re still on that journey through the education system which is a good insight into teenagers’ lives and challenges that they have, their ambitions and the opportunities for them. So it’s a great insight actually.
Lena: How do you see the future of Northamptonshire now that the Government has brought in the Commissioners to help?
Andrea: Well, actually, I was asked this question just before coming to see you Lena. I was asked this question at Wootton Hall School by a year seven pupil. “How do you see the future for Northamptonshire?” So I kind of went sort of a bit broad and said we are the centre of all of the sorts of high tech industries. We are also always in the top ten places to live and we have uniquely low unemployment. So in that sense the future looks pretty bright for
Northamptonshire and in particular because of the way that high-tech industries – artificial intelligence, personalised medicines, the extraordinary raft of new automotive technologies and climate change focused improvements and so on and we really, in the UK, but particularly in Northamptonshire, we are at the heart of those opportunities. So, big picture, I think we’ve got a very, very bright future.
Closer to home with the County Council, I mean obviously, there’s no getting away from it, there has been a disastrous period of time for the County Council and partly down to not putting up Council Taxes. Making too much of a virtue of being one of the cheapest Counties for Council Tax, which obviously people welcomed keeping their taxes lower but in the end if you don’t pay enough money you don’t get the services. Also, there have been problems with different areas within the County Council so I certainly welcome the support from Central Government to get things back on track. I think Matt Golby has been great the way he’s reached out to all Councillors and to the members of Parliament to try and make sure that we all know what’s going on and that we can all work together to sort this out.
For my constituents in South Northamptonshire I am really concerned about things like the threats to the libraries, the threats to the rural buses, in particular and so at individual policy level I am fighting pretty hard to make sure that we can keep those vital services because they really do matter to people.
Lena: Yes indeed. The Leader of Northamptonshire County Council, Matthew Golby, was one of the top cricketers for my village of Cogenhoe and has run more runs that anyone else, I think, in the history of the Club! Have you got any interests quite separate that perhaps you’ve always had or developed? I don’t expect you to boast of your runs in cricket!
Andrea: Well, funnily enough, I can’t say I’ve run runs in cricket but as a kid, from a very young age, about ten, I used to make the cricket club teas for my dad with my two sisters and I always remember, we used to make four loaves of Mother’s Pride bread. One egg, one tuna and cucumber… and I can remember it now… one ham, one jam and then we used to cut up angel cake, you know that Battenberg cake and ginger cake and fruit cake and that was every Sunday – week in, week out and we used to get fifty pence each which shows child labour in my view. My dad insisted it was a fair day’s work. For my own sports I really enjoy tennis and I’ve played tennis ever since school days when we didn’t have tennis courts but we used to practice up against the school wall, which actually quite good because it had a line painted on it so that you actually had the net height you see. I remember just spending every break time just doing that. I’m an OK tennis player. I wouldn’t say I’m at all good.
Lena: At the moment it is thought that the politics of today are too divisive. Would you like to see the Parties working together, finding a common ground? Can you see Parliament working together in that way?
Andrea: I love my job because I do, perhaps more than any other Cabinet Minister, have the chance to really reach across the Chamber. So you know I’m supporting Labour members with Private Members Bills on things like to change the law to make it a criminal offence to assault an emergency worker. As you know, in hospitals late at night someone can punch the very person who is trying to help them and that is absolutely disgraceful, let alone what happens to the police when they are trying to arrest people. So I think, for me, working across Parliament is a great thing and I have some great banter with the Scottish Nationalists, which is all light hearted and so on and so I do enjoy that more collegiate working.
On the other hand, I really do think that you need Opposition. I think that what keeps us honest in our democracy is the fact that there are deeply held opposing views and so I think it’s vital that we continue to enable people to strongly, very strongly, in the most strongly possible terms, disagree with each other on policy. Where I think we’ve gone badly wrong isn’t that we disagree on policies, it’s the way we express that disagreement. You said that I always keep a cheerful disposition and I think that is important to me. I wish that politicians would argue like anything about policy but treat each other with courtesy.
Lena: And respect?
Andrea: And respect. That’s what I’m setting up. This Independent Complaints Procedure in Parliament, which the Prime Minister asked me to do. I’ve been working on it for several months. The whole purpose of it is to try and change the culture in Parliament so that, to really force people, because you can be complained about if you are excessively rude to somebody. To learn, if necessary, the hard way, that you do need to treat people with courtesy and respect and right across all of our public discourse now, if you were to look at my Twitter account, it’s just unbelievable. Even just things like when under this new data protection role, where we are having to write to everybody to say can I keep your details. Some of the things people have sent back, you know, four letter words. Unbelievable! Actually, on what planet are people suddenly thinking it’s fine to be so vitriolic and abusive to each other.
Lena: There is so much nasty stuff online, so much unkindness.
Andrea: There is something about manners. To me everything goes back to those earliest years and whether you are raised in love and care or whether you’re ignored or neglected or just badly raised. All of those things go right through life. If you feel nurtured and loved you know how to nurture and love and if you weren’t then you don’t. I do worry that we are seeing now, right across all of our society, the impact of the sort of problems of failure. Everybody works and people go back to work, sometimes too soon for them and it’s very, very difficult.
Lena: So how do you see your future?
Andrea: I just really want to just carry on with supporting the future that I believe the UK has ahead of us. I do feel a huge amount of responsibility for making Brexit a massive success. I see enormous opportunities from trading with the rest of the world but it’s not just about trade, it’s also about opening our doors to the culture, the ideas sharing, the joint working and so on and the shared opportunities with the rest of the world.
Because of the pressures of being part of the EU we have not been able to fully take advantage of. I just think that there are so many bright lights out there and I really want to be a part of making sure that that happens.
Lena: It has been lovely talking to you. What do you remember most about your time in Parliament?
Andrea: I’ll always remember the night of the referendum. We decided we were just going to go on the air and face whatever the results, whether good or bad. I agreed to do Dimbleby when the referendum results were basically known. It was four in the morning and I was sitting, really, really tired. I’d done loads of rounds of broadcasting and I’d been up for virtually forty-eight hours. I was sitting there waiting to be mic’d up and this very senior BBC Producer came round the back and said “I just have to tell you – watching you at Wembley persuaded me to vote leave. You won’t let me down will you?” and I said “no, I definitely won’t let you down.”