Leadsom self-destructs with 'vile' childlessness comments
'Being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future,' says candidate for PM
Theresa May's most senior allies went to war against Andrea Leadsom last night in retaliation for her "vile" suggestion that the British home secretary should not become prime minister because she has no children.
The energy minister's critics included some of the Conservative Party's most senior women after Mrs Leadsom had suggested that she had a greater "stake" in Britain's future than her childless rival.
Mrs Leadsom insisted she was "disgusted" with the way that her comments had been presented following an interview with The Times and said she did not want the issue of children to be a feature of the campaign.
However, ministers backing Mrs May's campaign broadened their attack, saying Mrs Leadsom lacked the experience required to be prime minister, would divide the country, damage the economy and be a Tory version of Jeremy Corbyn if she became leader.
On a day of anger and recriminations in the Conservative Party's leadership campaign, Anna Soubry, the business minister, called on Mrs Leadsom to quit the leadership contest, saying that she was clearly not "PM material", adding that such a move would "do us all a favour including herself".
Priti Patel, the employment minister who campaigned alongside Mrs Leadsom in the Brexit campaign, said she would be too divisive to win a general election.
She said Mrs Leadsom's failure to win the support of Tory MPs meant that the party could suffer the fate as Labour under Mr Corbyn;
Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who clashed with Mrs Leadsom during a televised referendum debate last month, said: "I am childless. I have nieces and nephews. I believe I - like everybody else - have a very real stake in our country."
Therese Coffey, another minister who counts herself among Mrs Leadsom's friends, said: "I don't think it matters whether somebody has children."
Sir Alan Duncan, a former minister, who was at Oxford University with Mrs May, tweeted: "I'm gay and in a civil partnership. No children, but 10 nieces and nephews. Do I not have a stake in the future of the country? Vile."
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said most of his international counterparts had "never heard of Andrea Leadsom". Mr Hammond, who is supporting Mrs May, called on Mrs Leadsom to sign up to a pledge for a "clean" leadership campaign;
David Gauke, the Treasury minister, told the Sunday Telegraph that Mrs Leadsom had adopted three different positions in the space of one week over the issue of when she would begin the formal process of pulling Britain out of the EU.
He warned that this was fuelling "uncertainty and instability" in the economy and adding to market volatility.
Mr Gauke said Mrs Leadsom's comments about Mrs May's childlessness was "clumsy" rather than calculated. He added: "But nonetheless it did betray a great deal of inexperience and a lack of tact and crassness that you wouldn't look for from a prime minister."
Mrs May and Mrs Leadsom will appear alongside each other at hustings over the summer.
Whichever candidate can win the most votes from the party's 150,000 members will become Britain's second female prime minister.
Mrs May has the overwhelming backing of MPs but Mrs Leadsom's traditional, Christian values are said to be popular with members.
The row erupted after a newspaper interview in which Mrs Leadsom suggested that being a mother meant she had a particularly strong "stake" in the future of the country, unlike Mrs May.
The home secretary has previously spoken about how she and husband Philip were affected by being unable to have children.
Mrs Leadsom told The Times: "Genuinely, I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake."
Mrs Leadsom's team have complained about the reports. She strongly rejected the presentation of her comments as an attack on Mrs May's suitability to become prime minister.
In a statement read out yesterday afternoon outside her home in Northamptonshire, Mrs Leadsom said: "I was repeatedly asked about my children and I repeatedly made it clear that I did not want this to be a feature of the campaign.
"I am disgusted at the way this has been presented. I want to be crystal clear that everyone has an equal stake in our society and the future of our country."
However, a transcript of the interview released by the newspaper appeared to show the energy minister comparing her own status as a mother with Mrs May's childlessness.
It said: "I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn't have children, 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 that 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."
Penny Mordaunt - the UK's armed forces minister, who is backing the energy minister's campaign - said that she thought the row was an attempt to "smear" Mrs Leadsom.
"Andrea's first thoughts will be with Theresa in this matter, it's a horrible thing to have happened to both candidates," she said.
"But we have got to now raise our game and actually give a proper contest to the country."
Mrs May has previously urged her rival to sign a pledge committing to a clean campaign.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mrs May said she likes to keep her "personal life personal" but added that she and her husband had "dealt with" the fact they could not have children and "moved on".
"I hope nobody would think that mattered," she said.