He may have died in the seventeenth century but in his Mysterie of Rhetoric Unvail’d of 1657 John Smith showed he understood how sneaks such as Andrea Leadsom operate. Defining the rhetorical device of ‘apophasis’, Smith described it as
A kind of irony, whereby we deny that we say or doe that which we especially say or doe
Leadsom proved herself the queen of denying what she says and does: the apotheosis of apophasis. She made a political issue of the childlessness of Theresa May, a loss we know is a matter of sorrow to the Home Secretary and her husband, as it is to many couples, while denying that she was politicising the private life of her opponent.
I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children, Leadsom said of May with a slipperiness worthy of Uriah Heep, and continued
So I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel 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. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.
It was a naked appeal to the Tory grassroots to consider a prejudice many among them did not know they possessed. A childless woman, is incomplete, a decadent failure without a stake in the future of her country.
Until that moment, believers in the emancipation of women were enjoying the shortest of celebrations. They were able to say how pleased they were that the two candidates for prime minister were both women. What progress we have made! What a new world we live in where the triumph of women leaders is taken for granted!
Ms Leadsom took an all-women shortlist as an opportunity to mount a sexist attack no man would dare employ, and I am delighted to say it has ruined her ambitions.
Before her, right-wing men had used this tactic only against gay men. Niall Ferguson said Lord Keynes had urged the piling up of debt for future generations to pay off because he was gay and did not have children, Ferguson retracted not least because Keynes was bisexual. He and his wife wanted children, and were again heartbroken, that they could not conceive.
Helen Goodman, a thug from the Gordon Brown charm school, who everyone has now forgotten (not that there was much to remember), is the only woman politician I can find who anticipated Leadsom. In the 2015 Labour leadership election she tried to diminish the childless Liz Kendall by saying that she was supporting the fecund Yvette Cooper because ‘as a working mum she understands the pressures on modern family life’.
But hardly any Labour voters noticed Goodman’s bitch whistle. In any case, her attack did not begin to compare with the dripping insincerity, the simpering unctuousness, the ‘who me?’ pseudo-naivety, the fake tears and feigned compassion of Leadsom’s ‘I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children…But…’
It was too filthy an attack to justify. So the right did what it always accuses the left of doing, and turned Leadsom from the perpetrator into the victim. She was the target of a ‘black op’ cried that hysterical oaf, Iain Duncan Smith. It was a plot by the establishment, the Murdoch press, her supporters continued, as they signalled their Corbynista determination to deny the obvious.
Julie Burchill has coined the indispensable phrase ‘cry-bully’ : a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper, who attacks someone, then runs off screaming when their opponent responds in kind. The right is full of them.
This morning Leadsom apologised. At lunchtime she resigned. Optimists about British politics will find some consolation that her dirty tricks have found her out. I will wait and see how the end of her ambitions are greeted on the right, however.
Perhaps her supporters will admit the obvious. Perhaps they will say she was wholly unsuited to be prime minister at a time of national crisis, or indeed at any time. She did not have the experience or the ability to cope under pressure. If Andrea Leadsom could not give an interview to the Times without wailing on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that she had been stitched up, how would she cope with Vladimir Putin? Maybe they will say that her attacks on Theresa May spoke to her character as well as her experience. Decent people – and conservatives always insist that they are the decent backbone of England – simply do not behave as Leadsom behaved.
I doubt it. By tomorrow morning, a stab-in-the-back myth will be growing. Andrea Leadsom will be a lost leader, destroyed by an establishment, which wanted to silence the voice of the grassroots and the millions who voted to leave the EU. The Daily Telegraph and Iain Duncan Smith, Louise Mensch and all the other right-wing twitter trolls, will say that she was the victim of a smear campaign by the elitist enemies of the people. Leadsom will be the wronged heroine, whose assassination they must avenge.
The Brexit result has released the demons of the radical right. They feel, with justice, that British history is on their side. Far from weakening it, the martyrdom of St Andrea will only strengthen the cult, as the blood of martyrs always does. As I write, a Conservative MP is on the news saying that Leadsom was a victim of the ‘manoeuvres’ of her enemies. He won’t be the last.