The Tory Who Is Labour’s Real Worst Nightmare
Kemi Badenoch is a robust conviction conservative. The fact that her election would enrage the Left is a bonusPicture the scene. As Parliament returns from a summer of discontent, the Conservative Party unveils a new leader with the potential to disarm the Opposition, robbing them of their most potent lines of attack.
Step forward, Kemi Badenoch. Intelligent, straight-talking, young, black, female, a first-generation immigrant – yet rejecting any hint of victimhood. She avoids the “newspeak”, pompous rhetoric and robotic air that characterise too many politicians today. Crucially, she would be a new face, unscarred by the Johnson regime’s peccadilloes, talking convincingly about a fresh start as few of her leadership rivals can. To my mind, she would be Labour’s worst nightmare.
Badenoch wouldn’t just be immune to Labour’s traditional class-based insults. She’d bring out the worst in her most extreme opponents. The vicious Left, who believe ethnic minority voters are theirs by right, would hurl the same slurs as when Sajid Javid was appointed home secretary, repelling moderate voters. (If you want to see racism, look at the Left’s reaction to someone from an ethnic minority expressing conservative views.) In the Commons and on the campaign trail, her charisma and conviction would make Keir Starmer look even more of a wet lettuce.
PM Badenoch would certainly rattle the Left’s cage, but this would be a bonus, the cherry on the cake – not the main reason to choose her. In fact, her race and gender are two of the least interesting things about her. She is a refreshingly direct communicator, with properly conservative instincts; for the economy, too – not just on anti-woke social causes. Her genuine intellectual hinterland makes everything she says and does seem part of a coherent philosophy. After so much ideological drift, the Tories sorely need this.
Badenoch’s challenge in the coming days will be to avoid being dismissed as a “culture war” candidate, and emerge as credible on other issues. I believe she can do it. Her launch speech began with a well-informed section on the economy. She championed energy independence, pithily condemning the hasty push towards net zero as “unilateral economic disarmament”. She is one of few candidates even talking about the role of monetary policy in our present inflationary woes.
She immediately ruled out unfunded tax cuts, insisting that any reductions be accompanied by institutional reform and a permanent shrinking of the state. Badenoch is an optimist, but she is no yes-woman who is willing to tell colleagues what they want to hear, eroding the Tories’ already-tattered reputation for sound money in the process. “To make promises you can’t keep is a betrayal of everything I stand for,” she said. She suggested means-testing benefits such as the winter fuel allowance – perhaps a sign that, on her watch, Tory Britain might not be the same spendthrift client state geared entirely to the needs of older voters.
As a self-made 42-year-old, she would be well-placed to communicate conservative values to young people, and given her relatable background, they might even listen. She seems a “proper person” – refreshingly normal, the sort of woman you’d enjoy splitting a bottle of wine with. I see in her the wit and optimism people once valued in Boris Johnson, only without his glib promises and slipperiness. She is one of the strongest Commons performers I have covered as a parliamentary sketch-writer, and (with the exception of Penny Mordaunt) her rivals lack this natural warmth and authenticity. After the disastrous Johnson experiment, many will say charisma in politics is no longer top priority, but consider how its absence has bedevilled Starmer.
The Tory hierarchy has underestimated Badenoch before. After failing constituency selections in London when she was seeking to become an MP, she was dispatched to Saffron Walden in Essex where she defeated two CCHQ-approved candidates for the top slot. She wasn’t tipped to win, but the local association couldn’t resist her charm, conviction and robust conservative views. Sadly, she’s a long shot to reach the final round now; MPs must realise that if she were in the mix, members would struggle to resist someone so sound and genuine.
Critics have cited her lack of experience, despite her impressive record in junior ministerial roles. But voters need a break from the past, and her low-ish profile may put clear blue water between herself and the ancien regime. Liz Truss, though often right, risks being labelled the “continuity Boris” candidate. Rishi Sunak, albeit a brilliant intellect and a decent man, has been captured by establishment groupthink on the economy. The public associate him too closely with Johnson (and partygate, however unjust the former chancellor’s fine may have been). As the cost of living crisis spirals, Labour will make hay with his family wealth. This too would be unfair – but when has politics ever been fair?
Badenoch may be something of an unknown quantity, but I fear a continuity PM far more than the gamble she represents. As her hero, the economist Thomas Sowell put it, “many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions”. The Tories need a brave, innovative leader, ready to challenge the definition of what’s possible. Like Kemi Badenoch.