U.K. Leadership Fight Pits Seasoned May Against Untested Leadsom

  • Gove eliminated from shortlist in final vote among lawmakers
  • Cameron’s successor as premier will be announced on Sept. 9

The Challenges Facing Britain's New PM

The all-female battle to be the next U.K. prime minister pits a known quantity in Home Secretary Theresa May, supported by the bulk of Conservative lawmakers, against the controversial newcomer energy minister, Andrea Leadsom, whose pro-Brexit credentials could create an upset

The fight to succeed David Cameron and manage the country’s transition out the European Union is taking place against a backdrop of gyrating markets, with the pound trading near its lowest in more than three decades. Ministers are scrambling to recalibrate Britain’s relationship with the world, with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in China and Business Secretary Sajid Javid in India to negotiate trade.

Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The more experienced May, 59, won more than double her younger rival’s votes in a ballot among 330 Conservative lawmakers who are more pro-EU than the grassroots. The question now is whether May can maintain her commanding lead among the 150,000 members who have the final say.

Distinctive Slice

They constitute a “a very distinctive slice of Britain,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told the BBC.

To read more about the profile of the registered Tory members, click here.

A private poll commissioned by Leave.EU, one of the groups that campaigned for Brexit, suggested the home secretary may not be a shoo-in. It found Leadsom was favored by 56 percent of its Conservative supporters, compared with 44 percent for May. The group, whose private poll on referendum day correctly predicted the eventual outcome, didn’t provide a sample size. 

Whoever wins, Britain is set to have its second female prime minister in more than a quarter of a century. The victor will be announced on Sept. 9.

Leadsom is selling herself as an outsider and as the pro-Brexit candidate with the backing of former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who was the face of the ‘Leave’ campaign. Both could play well in a political climate that has favored mavericks and unexpected outcomes. Tory supporters also tend to be more Euro-skeptic than the general public.

“It’s the establishment versus the people,” said Tory lawmaker Peter Bone, a Leadsom supporter. “Across the board, people are crying out for anti-establishment politicians.”

‘Iron Mayden’

May stepped back from the acrimonious In-or-Out campaign that has torn the Tories apart. While she tepidly sided with the “Remain” camp she kept a low profile. Her backers tout her as a safe pair of hands to guide the country in a tumultuous time and a worthy heir to Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady. Even detractors who find her cold and distant held out praise for her competency.

To find out more about May’s standing and experience, read this profile

The Sun, the U.K.’s most popular daily newspaper, gave their endorsement by slapping her on Friday’s front cover with the headline: “The Iron Mayden.”

“Now is the time for me and my team to take my case out to the party members in the country,” May said after the result. “We need proven leadership to negotiate the best deals for leaving the European Union, to unite our party and our country.”

Neither woman has set out much detail of how they would carry out the divorce from the EU, beyond May saying Britain should proceed slowly and Leadsom arguing it can be done quickly. Their priorities for managing the economy are equally unclear, though May warned that the U.K. should no longer try to meet its target of a budget surplus by 2020.

The Underdog

The bookmaker Ladbrokes declared May the “red-hot favorite” to win the contest, giving her odds of 1/5, meaning a successful 1-pound bet would yield 20 pence of winnings plus the original stake. Leadsom was given odds of 7/2.

An obscure politician until she shot to prominence as a pro-Brexit debater, Leadsom is trying to shed the image that she is a novice. However a 12-minute address touted as a “major economic speech” repeated many of her campaign slogans. She’s also spent most of the week dismissing claims she has exaggerated her banking experience.

“This is ridiculous,” she told the BBC on Thursday. “I’ve not changed my CV; I have had 25 years in finance.”

Many of her colleagues do not think she is up the job, starting with her boss.

Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, said in a Channel 4 News interview that while Leadsom is “a very good junior energy minister, but hasn’t anywhere near the sort of experience necessary.”

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