Society

The Political Cheat Sheet: Andrea Leadsom

Each month, The Stack hands the mic to four women Members of Parliament. They get 15 minutes to tell us how they did it and what they stand for

By Edwina Langley

7 May 2021

MP: Andrea Leadsom

Party: Conservative

Constituency: South Northamptonshire (since 2010)

I

t was a frightening historical event that made up Andrea’s mind. She was a schoolgirl of no more than 13, the Cold War was at its height – and she was terrified.

“The Soviet Union and the United States [were] pointing nuclear weapons at each other, and we used to get […] letters from the government telling you how to build a nuclear shelter,” she says. “And the fact that ‘there might be bodies unburied in the streets’ and that you needed to ‘Sellotape up your windows’. And I would lie awake and [think]: ‘Are we gonna die, are we gonna die?’”

A solution quickly presented itself. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be an MP and save the world from a nuclear war’,” she says.

From grammar school, she went on to study political science at the University of Warwick. But while Andrea says her heart “has always been in making the world a better place”, having grown up “extremely poor” after her parents divorced, she craved financial stability. So she turned first to the City, finding work at start-up firm Wood Gundy Calatchi China Investments.

Over the next 25 years, she worked her way up the financial ladder, taking roles at Barclays Bank and, later, Invesco Perpetual. It was an experience that stood her in good stead for parliament because, as she says, “the thing with politics is, everything has to be paid for”.

In 2003, Andrea stood as councillor of the South Oxfordshire District Council and won. She contested, unsuccessfully, the Knowsley South constituency in the 2005 General Election, but stood for South Northamptonshire in 2010, and has been its MP ever since.

In parliament, she has held roles including Energy Minister, Environment Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Business Secretary, and has twice run for leadership of the Conservative Party.

Image by Clayton B Fraser / Wikimedia Commons

‘I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be an MP and save the world from a nuclear war'.’

How she voted

Andrea has voted in favour of same-sex marriage and for a reduction in welfare benefits’ spending. She campaigned to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. More recently, she spoke in the House of Commons in support of wedding organisers, calling for weddings to go ahead where venues can ensure social distancing measures.

What’s she working on

In her role as Early Years Health Adviser, Andrea has been focusing on the recently launched early years review, ‘The Best Start for Life: a Vision for the 1,001 critical days’.

It links to the Labour initiative Sure Start – launched in 1998 by the late Tessa Jowell – and aims to improve the ‘health outcome’ for all babies and children in England.

“What government hasn’t done is to provide enough support for families,” Andrea says. “Almost every single parent wants to be a good parent… and very often, they just don’t know where to go to get help… So what we’re recommending in this report is six action areas.”

The first is ensuring every family and child receives ‘Start for Life’ services, beginning at a child’s conception and going through to when they reach two years of age. It is a universal offer, to include midwifery, health visiting, as well as mental health and breastfeeding support.

The second area centres on enabling all families access to drop-in family hubs; family-focused centres offering a range of services, such as parenting courses and infant feeding advice. There would be ‘virtual places’ available too.

The third area looks at digital services and the provision of reliable and helpful information, including a new version of ‘The Red Book’.

“Every baby now gets a plastic red book with lots of paper notes in it,” Andrea explains. “But a digital version would stop families having to keep telling their story to lots of different healthcare professionals, and for the health professionals, they would know what had happened to your baby.”

The fourth is a “better workforce, with better training”, while the fifth addresses “better outcomes, measurement and inspections”, Andrea explains. The sixth area focuses on more efficient local leadership.

“This is totally cross-party,” Andrea adds. “Every single party agrees on this, and I’ve had discussions with the shadow front benches [and] you couldn’t put a fag packet between the views on this.”

Campus of the University of Warwick in Coventry
Image by Rob Brewer / Flickr

Advice for aspiring women MPs

Andrea believes more women would go into politics were it not for the threat of online abuse. She reveals there’s a bill going through right now to try to achieve safe digital spaces.

Fundamentally though, she thinks politics’ “negative brand” is off-putting and needs to change.

“There’s this constant pile-on that somehow MPs are bad people or in it for themselves, and that could not be further from the truth,” she says.

“Right across all parties, my colleagues are fantastic... We work together far more than we shout at each other in the chamber, and we’re all here to make the world a better place.”

Anything else?

Have you ever wondered how politicians can move seamlessly between briefs – making decisions on one thing one day, and decisions on another the next? Andrea reveals it is made possible because the skills required to be an effective decision-maker are effectively the same, regardless of the brief.

How it works is, civil servants submit policy submissions, which give Ministers “chapter and verse on everything to do, from the policy experts,” Andrea explains. “They say to you, ‘There are three options or there are five options or there are six ways you could go here’. And you sit with [a] cold towel, and you study, and you think: ‘That one!’”

She continues, “The civil servants advise and the Minister decides. And so the really critical skill or attribute or talent is to look at the brief, to understand the brief, to really focus on it, to be able to distil the information that someone else is giving you, and then to be able to make a decision.”

She adds: “I know lots of civil servants would agree with this, the worst kind of Minister is someone who just won’t make a decision.”

Bet you didn’t know…

Framed on Andrea’s wall is a memo from former Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent to the civil service during the Second World War. It concerns policy submissions and it reads: “Please, fellows, make your submissions shorter. Two to three pages will suffice.” (Andrea says policy submissions today can be up to 20 pages long.)

The Short Stack

Andrea Leadsom believes it’s the threat of online abuse that deters more women from entering Parliament and says MPs are not in it for themselves.

By Edwina Langley

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