Theresa May was selected to lead the British Conservative Party, and hence Britain, with the help of a media onslaught against her last remaining rival.
When Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Monday that he would be moving out of 10 Downing Street quite a bit sooner than planned, not in September, but on Wednesday — leaving the house, the office, and the cat to his successor, Theresa May — the abrupt end to his lame duck tenure seemed like a weight off his shoulders. And indeed Cameron was overheard humming a jaunty tune as he made his own personal Brexit, stage left.
But the backroom process through which the British Conservative Party had suddenly chosen May as its new leader, and hence prime minister — cutting short a campaign that was supposed to take two months and end with more than 120,000 members of the party’s grassroots getting to vote either for her or her rival, Andrea Leadsom — left many troubling questions unresolved.
To start with, there was the fact that May will now take office having secured just 199 votes for the position, all coming from Conservative members of Parliament, in a ballot that was supposed to choose not the prime minister, but just the two nominees with the most support from their fellow lawmakers. In effect, the Conservative Party’s equivalent of superdelegates just short-circuited even the pretense of democracy and selected the country’s leader from among their own ranks.
There is also the fact that May, unlike Leadsom, had opposed the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union before last month’s referendum vote in favor of a British exit imposed that course of action on the next government. Now Cameron is leaving office because he lost the campaign against Brexit but is handing over responsibility for implementing it to a new prime minister who agrees with him that it is a bad idea. May taking office to implement a policy she thinks unwise is perhaps the clearest proof that the referendum has created a crisis in which representative democracy and direct democracy are in direct conflict.
Then there was the suggestion from some, including Leadsom’s campaign manager, Tim Loughton, that the candidate’s downfall had been less her own doing than a sort of coup brought about by a vast, right-wing conspiracy of media barons, led by Rupert Murdoch, who published “an onslaught of often very personal attacks from colleagues and journalists.”
To unpack this allegation, it is important to understand that May’s elevation to party leader came about after Leadsom abruptly ended her own campaign on Monday, choosing to withdraw rather than face further criticism over ill-advised remarks she made three days earlier to The Times, the jewel in the crown of Murdoch’s British newspaper empire. In an interview splashed across the front page of that newspaper on Saturday, Leadsom had expounded on how being a mother made her more fit to lead the nation than her rival, May, who is childless.
In the interview, Leadsom, who had frequently used the phrase “as a mum” in speeches calling for Britain to leave the EU, was asked how that was relevant to her politics. She responded: “I don’t really know Theresa very well, but I am sure she will be really, really sad she doesn’t have children, so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t,’ do you know what I mean, because I think that would be really horrible, but genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.”
“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people,” Leadsom continued, “but I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.”
Over the weekend, the candidate tried and failed quite spectacularly to spin her way out of the ensuing mess by claiming that she had been misquoted.
On social networks, the candidate’s supporters even shared a note of apology from the newspaper on Twitter, before it was exposed as an obvious fake.
Unfortunately for Leadsom, her demand that the newspaper release a transcript of her remarks led The Times to publish not just the text but the audio of her exchange with the writer Rachel Sylvester, which left no doubt that she had indeed been quoted accurately.
While The Times’s journalism was vindicated, Loughton was not alone in wondering if the political preferences of the paper’s owner had played a role in the weight given to Leadsom’s remarks.
In her letter explaining her withdrawal from the race, Leadsom made no mention of the avalanche of bad press triggered by her comments, but the man standing directly behind her as she read it aloud to the press, her campaign manager, quickly blamed the media.
“It is absolutely not the job of media commentators to ‘big up’ politicians whether in this leadership contest or elsewhere in politics,” Loughton wrote. “But neither should it be their compulsion constantly to try to trip them up. Using spin and underhand tactics against decent people whose prime motivation is to serve has for too long undermined the confidence of the public in our politics.”
Loughton was clearly referring to the disastrous impact of Leadsom’s interview with The Times, but, as The Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade observed, before Leadsom withdrew on Monday she looked set to be overwhelmed by uniformly negative coverage from Britain’s most influential conservative-leaning papers. In addition to the relatively sober Times, Leadsom was being torn apart by the populist Sun, also owned by Murdoch, as well as the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.
Since British television broadcasters are still legally required “to ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality,” Murdoch has not been able to create a version of Fox News to influence events in the U.K. in the way that channel does in the U.S. However, his newspapers and others have much more latitude to take and support political positions, and leading figures in the Conservative Party are often paid to write columns, in much the same way that Republicans are paid to contribute to Fox News.
By Monday morning, the editors of all four papers had come out openly in favor of May. The leading editorial in Monday’s Sun urged Leadsom to drop out.
It’s increasingly clear that Andrea Leadsom lacks the experience and temperament to be our next Prime Minister.
Mrs Leadsom should have spent the weekend reflecting on the purpose of her campaign after a bruising few days.
She was ridiculed by fellow Tory MPs for her hustings performance, ex-colleagues questioned key parts of her CV, and her slur on Theresa May having no children drew wide condemnation.
While it appears certain that the hostility of Murdoch’s two papers — one aimed at the business class and the other at the working class — indeed played a role in pressing Leadsom to withdraw in favor of May, it seems likely that the man who brought London tabloid-style journalism to the American airwaves with Fox News was, in fact, forced to settle for his second choice.
On the eve of last week’s vote to narrow the list of potential prime ministers to two Conservatives, the editors of The Times and The Sun attacked Leadsom in similar terms as too inexperienced for the job and promoted the candidacy of Michael Gove, the justice minister, who had been a leader of the anti-EU campaign before the referendum.
Gove, whose most important role in the succession drama was undercutting support for his former ally, Boris Johnson, by denouncing the former London mayor and Telegraph columnist as unprepared to be prime minister, is, perhaps not coincidentally, a Times columnist.
The day before Gove finally withdrew his support from Johnson, a leaked email from his wife, Sarah Vine, suggested that both Murdoch and Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, “instinctively dislike Boris” and would not support him unless he offered assurances about going ahead with a complete withdrawal from the EU. Like her husband and Johnson, Vine has close ties to the right-leaning papers and is also a columnist, in her case, for the Daily Mail.
Although The Times had cautiously editorialized in favor of remaining in the EU, The Sun had led the charge for leaving the union. Murdoch himself has made no secret of his distaste for the EU. “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say,” Murdoch once told Anthony Hilton, the former business editor of The Times. “When I go to Brussels they take no notice.”
Just before Gove’s surprise announcement that he was entering the race to lead the country, Murdoch made his joy at the outcome of the referendum clear. Speaking at The Times CEO Summit, Murdoch called the decision to leave the EU “like a prison break,” but expressed concern that Johnson might look for a way to stay in if he became prime minister. Then the newspaper’s owner urged Gove, who attended the mogul’s wedding to Jerry Hall in May, to get into the race.
When Gove then failed to secure enough support from his fellow lawmakers to be one of the two nominees in the final stage of the leadership election, however — and May made a clear statement that she would oversee a complete withdrawal from the EU, pledging that “Brexit means Brexit” — it seems clear that the editors of Murdoch’s papers, like most Conservative MPs, came to see Leadsom as a loose cannon better removed from the race.
By Tuesday morning, The Sun was cheering May’s selection, even if doing so in the most sexist possible terms, by creating a photo montage that suggested her leopard-print shoes were appropriate for the new dominatrix of the Conservative Party.