Theresa May, Nicky Morgan and Andrea Leadsom


Is there a grown-up in the house?

Both political parties are in turmoil post-Brexit. Gaby Hinsliff goes in search of someone - anyone - with a plan, and finds a host of potential female contenders to be a nation's Nicola Sturgeon

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

The marriage had been on the rocks for years in retrospect, but we always thought we'd get through. Only now it's over, and what lies ahead is a brutally messy divorce. It's just that somehow we now have to thrash that out at the same time as changing careers, giving birth to twins and moving house – all in the same week. 

And that's roughly the real life equivalent of the brief the nation has just given Britain's next prime minister. The ideal replacement for David Cameron would be someone who can cope with a lifetime's worth of seismic events happening in a week – Britain voting to leave Europe, Scotland threatening once again to break away, the risk of a recession and a wobbly Northern Ireland peace process - while simultaneously juggling fire, catching bullets in their teeth, and possessing all the reassuring qualities of running home to your mum. Less politician, more superhero.

But since that magical person has yet to be born, the next best thing would be a grown-up in the room. Someone who seems at least to have a vague idea what they’re doing; someone with a plan to make Remainers feel less scared, Leavers more confident of getting what they were promised, and people who may have lived here for decades feel less vulnerable now emboldened racists are painting "Go Home" on the walls of Polish community centres. Maybe a national equivalent of Nicola Sturgeon, who at least seems to have worked out what she wants to happens next. Someone like…um…er….ah.

The next best thing would be someone who seems at least to have a vague idea what they’re doing; someone with a plan...Maybe a national equivalent of Nicola Sturgeon

Which is why David Cameron’s resignation seems to be sparking two party leadership contests rather than just one.

On paper Boris Johnson, all-conquering hero of the Leave campaign, should be a shoo-in for the Tory leadership. But a backlash has been building ever since Boris surfaced on Friday morning, looking as shocked as a kid who just broke a window with a cricket ball and hasn't yet worked out how to fix it. Perish the thought that Brexiters were too busy smashing the system to worry about the pesky details, but if they do have a watertight plan for every step of the road to Brexit then so far they’re not sharing it.

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And that’s why Theresa May has become a rallying point for Tories who want anyone-but-Boris; at a time of crisis she's seen as reassuringly steely and unflappable, with a proven record as Home Secretary for mastering detail. Her supporters argue that having basically sat on the fence during the referendum - she backed Remain, but not loudly enough to upset Leavers - she could be the one to bring both warring sides together. 

But May's not the only potential Tory grownup in the room. The TV debates made unexpected stars of both Andrea Leadsom (for Leave) and Amber Rudd for Remain; the women’s minister Nicky Morgan is also canvassing support. All are tough, serious women who have beaten the odds to get this far in the Conservative party. And if none of them have half of Boris’s charisma, you can’t imagine them getting embarrassingly stuck halfway down a zipwire in front of the world’s cameras either.  

Labour, meanwhile, is staring down the barrel of what could be a snap general election and wondering if Jeremy Corbyn is really what the nation wants in a crisis.

By Sunday night, 11 shadow cabinet ministers had concluded that he isn't and resigned, declaring no confidence in their leader, following the sacking of Hilary Benn. More are likely to follow, to the fury of many Labour members who don’t want to lose the man they elected only nine months ago.

But while his supporters are portraying this as a Blairite coup, that frankly doesn’t wash when you look at who’s going. Gloria de Piero grew up broke in Bradford eating free school meals, and now represents a former mining community in Nottinghamshire that voted hard for Out. Seema Malhotra, the shadow treasury minister, grew up in a flat above a shop in Hounslow and represents one of the grittier bits of west London. Neither was even in parliament when Blair resigned.

And given there's no obvious agreed candidate to replace Corbyn, somehow even this orchestrated attempt to get rid of him feels less like a masterplan and more like a distress signal. A last call over the tannoy, to see if someone magically appears; is there a grownup in the room? If so, now’s your moment.


Theresa May, Nicky Morgan and Andrea Leadsom
Tagged in:
women in politics
Labour Party
Conservative Party

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