LONDON - Two Conservative women running to become Britain's next leader are facing a question that wouldn't be raised if there were male candidates for the job: Does being a mother make you better qualified to be prime minister?
A political maelstrom emerged Saturday when Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom suggested in an interview with the Times of London that her status as a mother gives her an advantage over rival Home Secretary Theresa May, who does not have children.
The two women are in a runoff to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who is resigning after British voters rejected his advice and chose to leave the European Union. May is considered the front-runner, winning the most votes as Conservative lawmakers whittled down the candidates to two.
Leadsom's explosive remarks have touched off an uproar among Conservative party members who are voting in the runoff.
"I don't really know Theresa very well, but I am sure she will be really, really sad she doesn't have children. So I don't want this to be 'Andrea has got 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," Leadsom said.
"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," Leadsom said.
Leadsom, 53, immediately cried foul at the way in which the Times reported the remarks, which ran under the headline "Being a mother gives me edge on May- Leadsom." She accused the Times of "gutter journalism" and demanded a retraction.
"How could you?" she pointedly asked on her Twitter feed, directing her remarks to Times reporter Rachel Sylvester.
The Times shot right back, releasing a voice recording of the key section of the interview. Sylvester, who noted that Leadsom had talked about being a mother during the EU campaign, told the BBC she was baffled by Leadsom's reaction to a question about whether motherhood had informed her politics.
"She raised Theresa May and the fact that she doesn't have children herself," Sylvester told the BBC. "It was she who introduced Theresa May into the whole discussion."
May, 59, told the Daily Telegraph in an interview published Saturday that she likes to keep her "personal life personal," but said that she and her husband Philip have "dealt with" their inability to have children.
"I hope nobody would think that mattered," May said. "I can still empathize, understand people and care about fairness and opportunity."
May had asked Leadsom to sign a pledge calling for a "clean" campaign.
But the fact that the motherhood discussion is happening at all is a reflection of the intensity of passions and general turmoil that has engulfed British politics since the June 23 vote on EU membership.
While the question of parenthood has been raised in past races, British politics expert Victoria Honeyman at the University of Leeds said that personal insults - even in a heated campaign - are pretty low, particularly as May has acknowledged that the subject was difficult for her.
"It is plumbing some serious depths to go into that line of questioning," Honeyman said. "This is suggesting someone is deficient."
Leadsom's comments have caused fury within her own party. Among those angered is Conservative lawmaker Alan Duncan, a May supporter.
"I'm gay and in a civil partnership," he said. "No children, but 10 nieces and nephews. Do I not have a stake in the future of the country? Vile."
Cameron, who was in Poland for a NATO summit, refused to comment on the motherhood topic. For the record, he is a parent.
Amid the firestorm, Leadsom emerged from her home to read a statement before media cameras.
"Over the course of a lengthy interview 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," she said. "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."