Kemi Badenoch is unlikely to become the next prime minister, but by the secondary gauge of political party leadership contests – raising one’s profile and securing a top frontbench post under the winner – she has already done well.
The Saffron Walden MP and former levelling up minister has definitely edged ahead of Suella Braverman in the mini-race for prominence among right-leaning culture warriors, securing a top-level endorsement from Michael Gove and some positive polling figures.
One ally of Gove said the former levelling up secretary sees Badenoch as “brilliant” and able to take tough decisions. There is also reciprocal loyalty. In the 2019 Tory leadership election, Badenoch stepped down as a Conservative party vice-chair to work on Gove’s campaign.
YouGov polling of Conservative members, released on Wednesday, showed Badenoch, 42, is second on the list of people they would like to succeed Boris Johnson, albeit well behind Penny Mordaunt, and only just above Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
It is a prominent spot for someone who has been an MP for five years, remains unknown to most of the public and has never held a ministerial job above second-tier level, most recently a joint Foreign Office/levelling up role she resigned from last week.
But among the more limited circles of Conservative MPs and to an extent party members, Badenoch’s brand of confident, outspoken state-shrinking rigour, coupled with an enthusiasm for culture wars, has brought her some renown.
Her official campaign speech on Tuesday stressed her desire for “free markets [and] limited government”, promising that an administration led by her would “discard the priorities of Twitter”.
As with most speeches, there were few specifics, but what ideas for waste-trimming it did contain might be difficult to put into practice, for example the idea that money could be saved by taking resources from “superfluous support staff and peripheral activities” in schools.
Badenoch’s comment that police should “focus on neighbourhood crime, not waste time and resources worrying about hurt feelings online”, is likely to chime well with Tory members, even if some polling suggests they are not as attuned to culture-war subjects as some of the party’s MPs.
Badenoch has in particular been critical of anything connected to ethnicity-based identity politics, pursuing this with a zeal that her fans say is refreshingly clear-headed, but others have seen as occasionally pugnacious.
When Badenoch resigned as a minister last week, The Voice, Britain’s only black national newspaper tweeted: “Minister for gaslighting, Kemi Badenoch, resigns.” Although the tweet was later deleted, it illustrated the passions she provokes.
Badenoch says her worldview was shaped by her experience of growing up in Nigeria, where her parents moved from Wimbledon, south-west London, after she was born, then her experiences in England, where she returned to at the age of 16.
She experienced racism – although she did not call it that – at the hands of a teacher who told her to consider nursing when she said she wanted to be a doctor. “I can understand where the teacher was coming from … making an assumption that we were all a disadvantaged minority because of our skin colour. It’s typical of the mindset of the left,” she told the Daily Mail in 2017.
As equalities minister, Badenoch was the public face of the government’s defence of the Sewell report into ethnic disparities in the UK, which faced significant criticism for downplaying structural factors – ones Badenoch insists do not exist.
Simon Woolley, the crossbench peer who founded Operation Black Vote, said Badenoch has a particularly strong view on such issues.
“Of course we have always wanted a black prime minister – symbolism is important – but the rhetoric from candidates such as Kemi Badenoch around the Sewell report and potentially firing academics articulating racial inequalities that have been couched as ‘theoretical’ is bitterly disappointing,” he said.
“The reality has been laid bare by Covid-19 that systemic racial inequality still sadly prevails. No prime minister, black or white, can effectively tackle systemic and persistent race inequality if its very existence is fundamentally denied.”
July 13, 2022 at 09:48PM Peter Walker and Haroon Siddique