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The Mother Fetish: British Politics and the Tory Leadership Contest

What role the womb? Politically, it is exploited by the conservative creed as the indispensable mechanism for reproduction. To not add offspring to the ledger of life is not doing the good work of some sky god or inner instinctive voice. Not being able to do so somehow renders the political figure barren in a more than figurative sense.

Such criticisms should be the stuff of anachronistic ponderings. Yet British politics bore witness to a rather nasty appearance of it regarding criticism of the Home Secretary Theresa May. In a season to be nasty, this one was particularly crude.

May was always one of the solid contenders for the Conservative leadership once David Cameron committed electoral seppuku with the Brexit referendum loss he had hoped to prevent. Other members, having defecated in the stalls (that permanent school boy Boris Johnson being most notable amongst them), found leading the Conservative party a distinctly different proposition from leading the Brexit charge. Far easier to cry about freedom than practice its essentials.

This week became a rather busy matter with sorting out confidences in preliminaries for the new leader. The choice of a new prime minister should be clear by the second week of September, much to the irritation of those on the continent who wish to see a speedy transition.

The not so thrilled Tory veteran Ken Clarke, one of the longest current MPs serving in parliament, was far from impressed by what was on offer. Much of this came out in a reflective conversation with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, with the camera well and truly recording.

May, for one, was that “bloody difficult woman” too shaped by her lengthy stint at the Home Office. “She doesn’t know much about foreign affairs.” But no one deserved to be placed last more than the foolish pro-Brexit Michael Gove. “I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once.”[1]

Out of 330 Conservative MPs, May has the confidence of 199 after what turned out to be a bruising affair. One who seemingly threatened from a position that should have been much farther afield was former Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Andrea Leadsom. The spokeswoman of the mother cult had managed to knock out other rivals to pose a chance against May, citing herself as yet another anti-establishment figure.

On Friday, Leadsom drew on that reproductive theme in an interview with The Times. It suspiciously sounded like a pointed comparison of capable organs and the wisdom of having, let alone using, proper body parts.

As a mother, Leadsom was qualified to speak about “a real stake in the future of our country”. Having stated that she did not wish this to be a question of whether “Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t,” the candidate proceeded to do just that.

The primitive urge here is undeniable, suggesting a call to the cult of motherhood. Those who are not mothers need not apply for the top job. Not having that amniotic link was somehow disentitling.

A point that has been picked up behind Leadsom’s remarks is the possible hand of Tim Loughton, former education minister who took a less than graceful snipe at former Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather for not believing “in family” most probably because she “didn’t produce one of her own.” The unmistakably absurd logic of linking children to public office rears its head again.

Loughton has since played the anti-establishment card, suggesting that traditional managerial misfits were determined to attack his preferred choice of PM. “Since when has it been a crime to be proud about your children?”[2]

Leadsom subsequently took issue with the presentation by the journalist in question Rachel Sylvester. “Truly appalling and the exact opposite of what I said.” Naturally, it was not her remarks but just the way they were portrayed, clue that Leadsom is setting herself up for a career of stylised mendacity.

Smelling an ambush, her supporters have since demanded both a transcript and the full recording of the exchange. Neither make Leadsom appealing; they also provide her a bigger shovel with which to dig herself in. “She [May] possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.”

Leadsom managed to net the backing of 84 Tory MPs, which means that she will be very much in a race against May in persuading 150,000 Tory members that she has what is needed for Number 10.

Jane Merrick sees method to Leadsom’s tactics. “Leadsom knows that many Conservative members will see themselves reflected in her: Christian, socially conservative, anti-gay marriage, Eurosceptic.”[3]

Typically, Johnson continues to muck the stables with adolescent irritation, seeing Leadsom as some new star of unrepresented Tories. For one, she has made it clear that she will invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to speed up the political realities of Brexit.

He has busied himself with pushing her case, making the laughable cloud-cuckoo point that the conservatives have somehow shown a progressive streak because they have two female candidates vying for the top job.

“She is now well placed to win and replace the absurd gloom in some quarters with a positive confident and optimistic approach.” Johnson, ever selective with the account of history, failed to mention the cult of motherhood in that equation. The nasty party is set to get nastier, and more conscious of breeding.

Notes. 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/05/ken-clarke-caught-camera-ridiculing-tory-leadership-candidates-theresa-may-michael-gove

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/10/andrea-leadsom-camp-hits-back-motherhood-row-theresa-may

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/09/andrea-leadsom-remarks-childless-theresa-may-not-naive

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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