Snakes and Ladders: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Politics by Andrea Leadsom
“Her ear was unfailingly tinny,” Ferdinand Mount recalled in Cold Cream, “and though she could be devastating and inspiring in unscripted harangues, the sight of a written text would make her freeze.”
Mount’s account of the “horror” of being part of the team which laboured to compose Margaret Thatcher’s party conference speeches is wonderfully funny, but also demonstrates her seriousness.
She knew language mattered, and would spare no pains to get it right. The best speech-writers at the disposal of the Tory Party – Ronnie Millar, John Selwyn Gummer, Matthew Parris, Mount himself – were pressed into service, and kept hard at it for hour after hour.
A wider circle of strange personalities were asked, or themselves decided, to contribute passages, paragraphs or single jokes: Alfred Sherman, David Hart, Jeffrey Archer.
The final text seemed, Mount said, “almost deliberately conventional”, for by that time “all the smart phrases that Matthew Parris and I thought would take the fancy had long been deleted in favour of the more direct, brutal way of putting things that she felt comfortable with.”
But the point is that she did the work and had the necessary arguments. Everything had been tested, often to destruction.
The party conference speech mattered enormously to her and she was determined, despite being no natural orator, to get it right, just as she was determined to work out the right policies.
Andrea Leadsom’s account of her six years as a minister (2014-2020), four of them in the Cabinet, is permeated by no such seriousness of purpose.
The title of her book, Snakes and Ladders, suggests, as she later puts it, that politics is “a giant game”, in which you throw the dice and either go up a ladder or down a snake.
This is part of the truth: politics is indeed full of bizarre and unmerited changes of fortune, especially if you stay at the table for long enough.
But Thatcher would never have written a book with such a frivolous title, which does not actually convey what Leadsom herself was trying to do. Several times she informs us she went into politics “to make a positive difference”.
What a cloth-eared phrase! When has anyone ever declared the ambition to make a negative difference?
On page 102 of this book, just over a third of the way through, Leadsom tells her husband: “This is it. I’m going to be Prime Minister.”
It is July 2016, and she has just learned she has made it through to the final two in the Conservative leadership race, after Michael Gove precipitated Boris Johnson’s withdrawal.
She reckoned that as the only Brexiteer left in the contest, she could win it, and perhaps she was right: maybe the members would have preferred her to Theresa May.
But almost the first thing Leadsom did was to give an interview to Rachel Sylvester of The Times in a crowded coffee shop outside Milton Keynes station, with members of the public listening in.
No member of Leadsom’s staff was present, she made no tape-recording of the conversation, and the story appeared on the front page under the headline: “Being a mother gives me the edge on May – Leadsom.”
Leadsom at once tweeted that this was “the exact opposite of what I said”. But she also admits in this book that when asked multiple questions about motherhood by Sylvester, and “trying to draw a line under that questioning…I stupidly gave her the quote she was looking for”.
A storm of protest broke and Leadsom told her husband, “I can’t do this. It’s only going to get worse,” and soon conceded victory to May.
She put this failure down to inexperience, and to trying at the last moment to throw together a campaign team. Will Wragg, one of her small band of supporters, said “it was as if we were trying to build a jet engine as we were taxiing down the runway”.
This image leaves out of account the ability of the pilot to fly the plane.
Leadsom had only been in the Commons for six years, while May had been there for 19.
But this could have worked in Leadsom’s favour. In 2005, David Cameron, who had been in the Commons for four years, beat David Davis, who had been there for 17.
Admittedly, Cameron had spent quite a bit of time as a backroom boy. But he won by giving better speeches than Davis.
Cameron’s use of language enabled him to sound more promising, more full of potential than his rival. It is true that experience mattered too: he attracted a gifted and professional team – George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Ed Llewellyn, Steve Hilton – who like him had learned in the Conservative Research Department some of the rudiments of politics, including how to make the best case without actually lying for whatever the party programme just then happened to be, while highlighting the absurdities and inconsistencies in what Labour was proposing.
It was early observed of Cameron that he always knew what could be said. He had an ear for language. This is not the whole of politics, but it took him a long way. The feral beasts of the media laid traps for him and for most of the time he spotted the pit with sharpened stakes at the bottom and avoided falling into it.
Leadsom does not have that command of tone. The evidence for this lies not just in her disastrous interview with Sylvester but in her book.
Again and again, she makes statements which over-simplify whatever subject she is touching on. If she knew more history and had read more novels she would not have written:
“It is the stark reality that only a century ago a young woman’s future was determined by her father until she was passed on to her husband.”
To prepare for the leadership election which would take place when May stepped down, “a contest that seemed inevitable as far back as September 2017”, Leadsom set up a group which included Chris Heaton-Harris as whip and Steve Baker as campaign manager:
“The Forward Look group began to meet weekly and put in hours of work covering everything from drawing up a full set of policies to a media strategy, a campaign schedule and every detail relating to my bid down to the venue and even the music to be played at the campaign launch.”
She does not, unfortunately, tell us what the music was going to be, and in the summer of 2018 she lost a key member of the Forward Look team:
“Then came Chequers and Steve’s departure from the Government and his role as Brexit Minister. He wanted me to quit the Cabinet too, and when I didn’t, I went from hero to zero in his eyes, even being blanked by him as we passed each other in the corridor.”
Some, like Baker, were furious with her for not resigning after Chequers (the moment when David Davis and then Boris Johnson jumped ship), while others had not forgiven her for throwing in the towel in 2016 and allowing May to go through unopposed.
In the summer of 2019, when the contest to replace May at last took place, Leadsom secured the votes of 11 MPs.
Not for the first time in her book, the reader is left thinking that politics is a more difficult game than snakes and ladders.