UK's May warns of tough Brexit as rival Leadsom flaunts motherhood

British Conservative party leadership candidate Theresa May speaks at The St Stephen's entrance to the Palace of Westminster in London, on July 7, 2016.
British Conservative party leadership candidate Theresa May speaks at The St Stephen's entrance to the Palace of Westminster in London, on July 7, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The two rivals to become the UK's next prime minister stepped up their campaigns, with Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom extolling the virtues of motherhood while Home Secretary Theresa May, who is childless, pledged to get Britain through the "difficult times" that Brexit would bring.

David Cameron's successor will be chosen by the Conservative Party's 150,000 members. May, who quietly backed the campaign to remain in the EU, has the support of most of her fellow lawmakers, while Leadsom is touting her "Leave" credentials to drum up votes among a predominantly Euroskeptic base.

May committed to withdrawing Britain from the 28-nation bloc and said that "control of free movement" would be part of that. "But alongside that, it's important to show how we can come through what will be, I think, some difficult times with a better brighter future," the Telegraph newspaper quoted her as saying in an interview.

Europe's second-biggest economy faces a power vacuum until the new leader is announced on Sept 9. The country is still reeling from the shock referendum result, which prompted Cameron to resign, sent sterling to a 31-year low, and pounded consumer and business confidence. While politicians have yet to say exactly how they will extricate the UK from the union, lawyers are lining up to fight over what Brexit will look like.

FINANCE BACKGROUND

A Christian mother of three who used to work in finance, Leadsom used her interview with the Times of London to say being a mother gave her a "very real stake" in the future, according to the newspaper. May has said publicly that she and her husband were saddened that they could not have children.

 

Leadsom responded angrily to the Saturday headline on the Times that said "Being a mother gives me edge on May." She wrote on Twitter it was "truly appalling and the exact opposite of what I said."

Leadsom, who has never run a government department, has faced questions she says are unfounded about whether she exaggerated her banking experience on her resume. 

The 53-year-old junior minister is also more socially conservative than May, 59. She disliked Cameron's legislation allowing same-sex marriage, which May instead actively supported. Cameron, who has not endorsed either candidate, took a veiled swipe at Leadsom on Friday, saying he was proud of the law, which enjoyed broad parliamentary support.

Outsider Leadsom, whose boss at the energy department is backing May, 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 favoured mavericks and unexpected outcomes.

A private poll commissioned by Leave.EU, one of the groups that campaigned for Brexit, found Leadsom was favoured by 56 per cent of its Conservative supporters, compared with 44 per cent for May. The group, whose private poll on referendum day correctly predicted the eventual outcome, did not provide a sample size.

May's backers see her as a safe pair of hands, with experience running one of the most important government departments. She has a reputation as a tough negotiator with an eye for detail and the stamina for hard work. "Theresa is a bloody difficult woman," her former cabinet colleague Kenneth Clarke said Monday in an unguarded comment caught on camera by Sky News.

LEGAL WRANGLE

As the country awaits the verdict of the Conservative rank- and-file there is a big question mark hanging over what the exit process will look like, with jurists lining up to argue over the fine print. Government lawyers maintain that it is the prime minister's prerogative to initiate the mechanism. That rationale was met with resistance.

On Friday, a UK man, described by his lawyer as an "ordinary guy," filed the first lawsuit seeking to slow Brexit through the courts.

The bid for a judicial review contends that Parliament, not the prime minister alone, must decide on triggering the exit process, said Dominic Chambers, a lawyer working on the case.

Mishcon de Reya, a London law firm representing a group of unidentified clients threatening legal action, also argue that the process can only start with lawmakers' consent.