“I decided I was going to be an MP when I was 13,” Andrea Leadsom reveals. It was the mid-1970s. Industrial strife, blackouts and a weak economy had earned Britain the unwanted label of “the sick man of Europe”.
Her political conversion came less from Britain’s post-War decline than the Cold War and what she describes as her feeling of “absolute terror” at the threat of a nuclear conflict.
“I thought, if I go and become and MP I can save the world from a nuclear holocaust,” she says.
Forty years later, Mrs Leadsom finds herself at the heart of a government confronting a new kind of terror: the threat from jihadists who have attacked Europe 14 times in the past 14 months.
“Getting rid of internal borders without properly policing external borders has proven to be a huge risk” Andrea Leadsom
As the horror of the Brussels attacks unfolded, Mrs Leadsom was confirmed in her own conviction that Britain would be safer outside the European Union. Now she is campaigning in the referendum to convince the public to vote to leave.
“It is a terrible thing to have to consider it in that context,” she says. “We can’t use this disaster in Brussels to make the case for ‘Brexit’. It is devastating. But I fear being in the EU does make a difference to the risks to our own citizens.”
In an interview with The Telegraph, the Energy Minister reveals why she believes it is time for Britain to leave the EU. She dismantles the “silly” scaremongering from the likes of the Prime Minister and his allies about the risks of leaving; sets out her vision for a “brilliant” future for Britain as an unshackled trading nation; and urges mothers to vote to leave in the referendum in June for their children and grandchildren – who may never have this chance again.
Yet uppermost in her mind in the wake of the Brussels bombings is the security threat to Britain that she fears will only grow as a result of Europe’s policy of mass migration. The “madness of open borders” within the EU’s free travel zone is “incredibly dangerous” and will put the UK in greater peril, she says.
“Getting rid of internal borders without properly policing external borders has proven to be a huge risk.” Monitoring the movements of individuals across Europe has become fraught with challenges, she says. “Having a European passport – as it appears a number of terrorists do have – is actually making things even more difficult.”
Her opponents – including David Cameron – have warned that Britain’s ability to share intelligence with other EU countries and tackle extremists would be undermined by Brexit.
Mrs Leadsom is careful to be polite about her colleagues but clearly disagrees.
“It is not the case that being out of the EU would prevent us from cooperating. In fact the moral and actual duty to cooperate – as we do with the United States – would remain.
“Would we lose anything from Brexit in terms of intelligence sharing? No. Would we gain anything in terms of national security? I am afraid I think the answer has to be Yes.”
For all her warnings, Mrs Leadsom, 52, is not a hard-hearted Right-winger with anti-migrant views. In fact, as a pro-business minister who grew up as the daughter of entrepreneurs, she understands that employers need to be able to recruit widely to fill the vacancies in the workforce.
And as a mother of three, who founded a charity to help infants and young families, Mrs Leadsom is also acutely conscious of the human tragedy unfolding in the refugee crisis on the shores of the Mediterranean.
“I absolutely feel for the migrants – families, mums with young children, unaccompanied children – they must be helped and we can’t turn our backs,” she warns.
She condemns the “horrible” solution proposed by Brussels to ease the impact of the migration crisis on the EU: sending refugees back to Turkey and in exchange allowing Turks visas to move to Europe.
Yet the impact of migration into the UK – which is close to record levels – also affects British families trying to use public services, she says.
“People trying to get their child into a local school, get a doctors’ appointment, trying to get housing, they are competing with what is already a huge wave of people coming to this country looking for work.
“We need workers to build our businesses but I have seen and I am concerned that in the last 10 years since this massive wave of EU migration, wages have been held down by the enormous amount of labour that has come to the country.”
According to the likes of Lord Rose, the former Marks & Spencer boss now leading the “In” campaign, Brexit would ruin businesses, wreck the economy, and cost millions of jobs.
Mrs Leadsom savages these arguments. “The Remain camp are using project fear and it’s very silly because so few of the claims really hold water. For example, saying we will lose three million jobs. That’s just blatant nonsense.”
Britain’s attractions for businesses will remain – the talent pool of highly trained recruits for the City; world-leading universities and scientists; high quality contract law; the English language; the UK’s time zone; and “the most creative and inventive financial centre in the world”.
She also dismisses claims by her boss at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary, who warned in a speech last week that Brexit could put up energy bills and lead Russia to wreak chaos in the gas market.
“I really can’t see why bills would go up,” Mrs Leadsom says. Electricity is traded internationally on a commercial basis and “gas we get from around the world”, she says. “Our energy security is not dependent on the EU at all. It is rock solid.”
But her central point is that the core of the EU must move towards closer integration among the Eurozone countries, aligning economies as divergent as Greece and Germany – while Britain stands by and watches.
“We are not on the same path,” she says. “It’s not about being a little islander. There are huge opportunities from the rest of the world. We do not need to be handcuffed to the European Union.”
Mrs Leadsom seems to embody the entrepreneurial spirit that animates the free market strand of Tory thinking. After a 30 year career in the financial sector, she entered Parliament in 2010 as MP for the new constituency of South Northamptonshire.
Soon afterwards, while still a junior backbencher, she co-founded the Fresh Start Project, a Eurosceptic pressure group of MPs who wanted to overhaul the UK’s membership of the EU.
Now, despite being a busy minister, she has revived the group, which meets weekly and is drawing up a series of leaflets to set out “what Brexit could look like” for farmers, doctors, city traders, small business owners, and others.
“My mum raised us to believe the world does not owe you a living” Andrea Leadsom
As a dynamic senior Tory women and free market supporter, she inevitably attracts comparisons with Margaret Thatcher.
Where does Mrs Leadsom get her work ethic and her politics? After her parents – both entrepreneurs – divorced when she was four, her mother, Judy “worked all hours” to support the family in difficult circumstances. Four years later, she remarried and set up a furniture shop.
“My Mum raised us to believe the world does not owe you a living, nobody is going to help you out and you need to make your own way in life. She describes herself as a market trader and my step-dad is a bit of an armchair socialist.
“Over family dinners, the conversation always turned to politics. I instinctively thought my Mum was right because what you need in life is opportunity – and then you just have to work.”
Now, with what might be the only chance for a say over Britain’s future in Europe, Mrs Leadsom is working to convince mothers across Britain to think of their children, and grandchildren, when they vote in the referendum on June 23.
“I have three kids. Everything I do is for them. What are the opportunities they are going to have? I see increasingly shackles if we stay in an EU that is in decline, and I just see the moist fabulous opportunities, pushing down the drawbridges to the rest of the world. That is what I want for them.”
(Tim Ross 26 MARCH 2016 )