The race to be the next leader of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, and hence prime minister of the United Kingdom, was whittled down to two candidates on Thursday: Theresa May, the home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, deputy energy minister.
As the two lawmakers with the most support from their colleagues, they will now spend the next two months trying to win the votes of the party’s members, a small and deeply unrepresentative portion of the British electorate thought to number less than 150,000. (By comparison, more than 33.5 million people voted in last month’s referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union.)
While May has been a high-profile member of the government for the past six years, Leadsom is a relative newcomer, who was first elected to Parliament in 2010 after a career in banking.
However, some clues about the kind of campaign Leadsom might run appear to have been accidentally made public on Thursday by a supporter who was spotted on the London underground studying what looked like notes laying out her strategy.
Ben Hart, a digital content manager who supports the Green Party, photographed and shared images of the notes in the hands of a man he stood next to in a Central Line carriage traveling between Notting Hill Gate and Marble Arch.
While nothing is known about the identity of the man in the yellow tie, who got off after one stop, according to Hart, the notes almost certainly describe a campaign for Leadsom, since one line reads: “Boris to campaign around the country for her.” That would be Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, who dropped out of the race to succeed David Cameron after doing more than anyone to force his resignation by leading the successful campaign to convince Britons to vote to leave the European Union in last month’s referendum. Johnson, who campaigned for the British exit from the EU alongside Leadsom, endorsed her leadership bid this week.
May, who has far more support from her fellow MPs, was on the opposite side in the referendum campaign, arguing that Britain should remain in the EU, but has promised to carry out the will of the people and oversee the British exit.
The leaked list of a dozen ideas for Leadsom’s campaign begins with a strange one. It seems to be a pledge to bar U.K. courts from considering the rulings of Muslim clerics, and includes a link to a 2009 report from a think tank that recommended that “Sharia courts should not be recognized under Britain’s 1996 Arbitration Act.”
Given the very real possibility that leaving the EU could cause an economic crisis in Britain, it might seem odd to focus on the largely imaginary threat to British jurisprudence posed by Islamic law, but Leadsom’s strategy could be to appeal to the far-right of her party by tapping into the panic about “creeping Sharia.”
Several of the other points suggest a right-wing campaign, perhaps modeled on the success of Donald Trump with Republican primary voters, including a promise to “Wage war on political correctness” and the view that “positive discrimination,” the British term for affirmative action, should be made “explicitly illegal.” In Andrea Leadsom’s Britain, the notes suggest, firms would not be allowed to consider race, gender, or sexual preference in hiring decisions.
The notes also contain what looks like a promise from Leadsom to begin Britain’s formal withdrawal from the EU immediately after taking power, triggering Article 50 of the union’s treaty in September, which starts the clock ticking on a two-year deadline for completing the process. May has said that she would move more slowly, not sending the formal notice to withdraw described in Article 50 until next year at the earliest.
In television interviews, Leadsom has seemed eager to position herself as more socially conservative than May, who voted in favor of same-sex marriage in 2013. Leadsom, who abstained from that vote, told ITV on Thursday that while she believes “that the love of same-sex couples is every bit as valuable as that of opposite-sex couples,” she would have preferred “for marriage to have remained as a Christian service for men and women who wanted to commit in the eyes of God.”
Hart’s photo also shows the unidentified man scribbling down a comment on the European convention on human rights, which reads, “May was right.”
As home secretary, Theresa May had called for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European convention on human rights in April. When she announced her leadership bid last week, however, May seemed to drop the idea, saying that she would not pursue it as prime minister since “this is an issue that divides people, and the reality is there will be no Parliamentary majority for pulling out of the ECHR.” The man’s scribbled note suggests that Leadsom could attack May for her change of heart.
The notes also suggest involving the right-wing columnist Toby Young in education reform. Young, a very vocal critic of state-run schools, set up and ran his own school in a burst of publicity in 2011, only to admit last month that he had underestimated just “how hard teachers work and what a difficult job it is.” The privatization of public services is as much of an obsession for the right in Britain as it is in the United States.
The document made no mention of what has become Leadsom’s greatest challenge: answering questions about whether she misrepresented her past work in the financial services industry. Leadsom told the BBC on Thursday that it was “ridiculous” to say that she had embellished details of her career in the industry before she entered politics.
However, Robert Stephens, a former colleague at Invesco Perpetual, one of Britain’s biggest retail fund managers, insisted in an interview with Channel 4 News that Leadsom’s claim to have worked in a senior investment management role was untrue. “Andrea Leadsom wasn’t that. She was a part-time assistant to the chief investment officer,” Stephens said.
“The sort of thing she worked on was negotiating the remuneration packages of senior fund managers, for example. She was sort of in charge of pay and rations, as one of my former colleagues put it. A very important job, but not a job that entitles you to call yourself either a banker or an investment manager.”
Questions have also been raised about claims by Leadsom in a blog post she wrote in 2009 that she had helped Eddie George, the late governor of the Bank of England, calm the fears of bankers in 1995 when the merchant bank Barings collapsed. According to Leadsom, she was “in the thick of it” with the Bank of England governor as he tried to prevent a run on the banks and reassure markets.
However, the chief executive of Barings at the time, Peter Norris, told Reuters on Thursday that he did not remember her playing any role in the failed attempt to rescue the bank. “I was there the weekend of Barings’s collapse,” Norris said. “I presented to all the banks in a room with Eddie George and I have absolutely no recollection of her at all.”