Badenoch: a subtler politician than her critics allow? Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Is Kemi Badenoch a new kind of Tory?

Kemi Badenoch could be the next leader of the opposition. It’s a notoriously difficult job—and hers is a notoriously mutinous party. But she might just have the qualities to succeed
December 6, 2023

On Tuesday 14th November, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, and Kemi Badenoch, secretary of state for business and trade, gave a press conference in Jacksonville on the new “memorandum of understanding” (a nonbinding cooperative agreement) reached between the UK and the Sunshine State.

Standing behind a lectern bearing the slogan “Strength Through Partnership”, Badenoch said how much she liked her host personally—“I found him very warm and engaging, and we had a lot in common”—and praised his dynamism in getting the deal done. DeSantis, for his part, alluded to their respective struggles as culture warriors, “making sure that our institutions and our society are governed by sound principles and not some of the outlandish ideology that we’re seeing.”

There was indeed a symbolism in this joint appearance: both DeSantis and Badenoch are deeply engaged, on their respective sides of the Atlantic, in the race to define the next iteration of post-2016 conservatism. Barring a huge upset in the presidential primaries, DeSantis’s campaign to be the Republican candidate in November 2024 looks headed for failure. His new British ally, on the other hand, is just getting started.

Too often caricatured as a predictable right-winger with boilerplate Daily Mail opinions, the 43-year-old Badenoch is a politician of greater subtlety than her (many) opponents allow. Yes, her base may be on the Brexiteer right of the party. But those who admire her include Conservatives of a very different ideological complexion—notably, Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, who is both a likely rival as the one-nation candidate in a future leadership contest and, he told me, “a good friend”.

She also has supporters far beyond the Conservative stockade. In mid-2022, for example, Julie Bindel, the left-wing feminist author and activist, posted the following: “I would rather give Donald Trump a massage than vote Tory, but if you want to know who I’d back to be the next PM? @KemiBadenoch all the way. She has her head screwed on. Only real grown up in the room.”

Though the general election could be held as late as 28th January 2025, and Badenoch (like every cabinet minister) must remain publicly loyal to Rishi Sunak in the meantime, she (like every cabinet minister) is working on the assumption that the Conservatives will lose and that there will be a leadership contest shortly thereafter.

In July 2022, having resigned as equalities and local government minister over Boris Johnson’s mishandling of the Chris Pincher sexual misconduct scandal, Badenoch took Westminster by storm when she stood in the Conservative leadership race to succeed her former boss.

Everything about her campaign was audacious, cheerfully disruptive and magnetic to Westminster journalists who wanted a story more interesting than Sunak and Liz Truss arguing about tax cuts. Though she had been a minister for less than three years, and an MP for only five, Badenoch launched her campaign in a room festooned with posters and banners bearing the slogan: “Kemi for Prime Minister”.

It certainly helped that she had been backed by as senior a figure as Michael Gove, her former boss at the Levelling Up Department, recently sacked himself by Johnson for alleged disloyalty. “[W]e need someone with Kemi’s focus, intellect and no-bulls**t drive,” Gove wrote in the Sun. “As a Tory leader, she would be Sir Keir Starmer’s worst nightmare.”

Badenoch is a politician of greater subtlety than her opponents allow

In her recent book, The Plot, former culture secretary Nadine Dorries suggests that Gove, as a senior member of an alleged “movement” secretly manipulating the Conservative party from the shadows, had encouraged Badenoch to run only to split the vote on the right with Truss and “allow Rishi to come in down the middle.”

Sources close to Gove—now ­reinstalled as levelling-up secretary—dismiss this account. “This is bonkers, even by Nadine’s standards. Michael rated Kemi highly and saw her as the future of the party. He thought she should run, if only to put down a marker.”

Gove’s patronage, in any case, was not Badenoch’s only asset. “All the data was showing that Tory members absolutely loved her,” recalls one of her campaign team. “There was a real energy around, this sense of something new unexpectedly emerging from a government that had been around for 12 years. We never mentioned Obama—that would have looked madly conceited—but some MPs did. And we felt that if we could get past the parliamentary rounds, we had a good shot at winning with the members.”

It was not to be. Badenoch made it to the fourth round, securing the support of 59 MPs, and was knocked out. Truss went on to defeat Sunak in the final ballot—and, notoriously, served as prime minister for a grand total of 49 days.

This time, as Badenoch acknowledges to friends, will be different. No longer a newcomer, she has been a member of the cabinet since September 2022, initially as international trade secretary—a portfolio that was expanded by Sunak in February to embrace all business and trade policy, and minister for women and equalities since October 2022.

As a senior government member, she has had her share of scrapes. In May, Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, furiously denounced her for disclosing a change in government policy to the press before a minister announced it to the Commons (a controversial decision to abolish 600 EU-era laws by the end of the year rather than the 4,000 pledged). “Who do you think you’re speaking to, secretary of state?” Hoyle raged, after Badenoch apologised a little too archly for behaviour “not to your satisfaction”.

In June, she clashed with her fellow Conservative MP David Jones at a hearing of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee over the same issue. Badenoch, rapping her fingers on the desk, insisted that she had kept colleagues informed in private and that “it is not the bonfire of regulations. We are not arsonists. I am certainly not an arsonist.” The problem was that a “bonfire” of EU rules was precisely what many Brexiteers wanted. 

In Number 10, there is irritation that Badenoch does not spend as much time schmoozing business leaders as they would like. In response, her allies deny this charge—and point out she has hardly been idle, securing in July the UK’s accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade pact with 11 nations including Japan, Canada and Australia.

However, if she stands again, she will no longer be the break-out star. As Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of many books on the Conservative party, puts it: “She’s now more of a known quantity and, despite the fact she’s recently focused on being able to say she’s helped the UK make the most of Brexit, her abrasiveness towards some of her fellow MPs and her reputation for not suffering fools gladly might be an issue.”

Badenoch concedes that “plain-speaking” has a political price. “I’m not necessarily sure it’s popular when you start governing,” she said at the Cato Institute in Washington DC in late 2022. “When you start telling the truth in government, and being very honest and plain-speaking, it’s not that fun for people who have to hear some of the hard truths.”

Badenoch is described as ‘soft right’—though, in this case, the softness is relative

One of her friends puts it more bluntly: “She does cross the road to have an argument with people. The body count is mounting up a bit.” Many drinks receptions and dinners for MPs will be needed to make new friends and reassure the bruised.

More to the point—assuming that the Conservatives lose the election and Sunak goes—she will be competing this time for the role of leader of the opposition rather than prime minister.

A thankless task at the best of times, the job will be especially difficult for Sunak’s successor, who will inherit a party that has been riven by factionalism, fury and multiple neuroses since the Brexit referendum of 2016. Badenoch has had to think hard about the potential impact upon her husband Hamish, now a senior executive at Deutsche Bank, whom she married in 2012, and their three young children. Even with her current responsibilities, she has little time for family life, more closely resembling Margaret Thatcher in her round-the-clock dedication to work than David Cameron, who famously believed in “chillaxing” at Chequers.

Badenoch has told allies that it is her “duty” to try to unite and rebuild the party. And she believes that no one else is as well-suited for what will be a truly formidable task. Already, Alex Morton, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and former adviser to David Cameron, is being mentioned as Badenoch’s prospective guru in the expected contest. She remains close to Lee Rowley, the recently appointed housing minister who ran her first campaign.

Her most dependable advantage remains her popularity with the party’s 170,000 or so members. In the regular surveys conducted by the Conservative Home website, she vies with home secretary James Cleverly for the top spot as most popular cabinet member.

According to the site’s editor, Paul Goodman, who is also a former Tory MP: “The surveys suggest she would have a good chance with the members if she could get through the parliamentary stage of any contest. That a black woman vigorously articulates their worldview is undoubtedly a plus for them—for some it may also seem to legitimise it.”

In this context, to speak of Badenoch’s “backstory” is crass, because her life experience has given much more to her than an appealing political showreel.

Olukemi Olufunto Adegoke was born to Nigerian parents in Wimbledon in January 1980, her mother having sought obstetric care in the UK. Her father was a doctor and her mother a professor of physiology. She grew up in Nigeria where, with Yoruba as her first language, she saw much that was to influence her political evolution.

With Nigeria in political chaos, she returned to the UK in 1996 to take A-levels at a further education college in Morden, flipping burgers at McDonald’s to pay her way. Her ascent was swift: having gained a masters in systems engineering at Sussex University, she obtained an LLB at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Starting her career as a software engineer at Logica, she proceeded to positions at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Coutts and the Spectator, where she was digital director from 2015 to 2016. Though the centre-right magazine once edited by Johnson (and, for full disclosure, by me) has been a formidable force in Conservative government circles in the past decade, contemporaries do not remember Badenoch as conspicuously political in the workplace. 

They could have been a duo like Thatcher and Keith Joseph: Badenoch and Gove have apparently drifted apart. Image: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock They could have been a duo like Thatcher and Keith Joseph: Badenoch and Gove have apparently drifted apart. Image: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

Having achieved her initial ambition to join the London Assembly in 2015, she became MP for Saffron Walden in the snap general election two years later. “Growing up in Nigeria, I saw real poverty,” she said in her maiden Commons speech in July 2017. “I experienced it, including living without electricity and doing my homework by candlelight, because the state electricity board could not provide power, and fetching water in heavy, rusty buckets from a borehole a mile away, because the nationalised water company could not get water out of the taps.”

Her distaste for the authoritarianism she had witnessed in her youth led her not only to classical liberalism but a radical belief in the smaller state. And on this matter she left no room for doubt at her campaign launch in July 2022: “[We] can only deliver lower taxes if we stop pretending that the state [can] continue to do everything we are currently trying to do. We need to recognise that it’s not just a matter of doing the same with less.” 

On Nick Robinson’s podcast Political Thinking in November 2020, she said that she could not “believe the way people talk about Margaret Thatcher in this country… She’s an icon and I love her”. She also cited American thinker Thomas Sowell and his conservative textbook Basic Economics (2000) as a key influence. 

After her precocious run at the leadership, Truss was more or less obliged to promote Badenoch to the cabinet—though she vetoed Badenoch’s choices of culture or education in favour of international trade. Truss was apparently trying to limit her ability to enhance her reputation as a culture warrior. But truth to tell, that train had already left the station. Even before she became a minister, Badenoch had established herself as an incisive critic of “wokery” (a word she dislikes), of “critical race theory” (which explains racism entirely in terms of power relations) and of trans activism.

In her 2023 conference speech in Manchester, she declared that “I tell my children that this is the best country in the world to be black—because it’s a country that sees people, not labels. Conservatives want young people to be proud of their country when others want them to be ashamed… And if that puts us in conflict with those who would re-racialise society, who would put up the divisions that have been torn down—well, Conference, all I can say is: bring it on.” 

This was catnip for the Tory faithful, and traumatising hate speech for the social justice left. For Badenoch herself, however, such rhetorical moments meant the most delicate of political calculations—involving Suella Braverman, the ferociously populist home secretary (who was finally sacked in November), and Badenoch’s principal rival for the support of the Tory right.

“There is always an element of triangulation,” says one supportive minister. “Kemi has to be right wing. But not too right wing. Suella talks about a ‘hurricane’ or an ‘invasion’ of immigrants, or an ‘existential challenge’ to the west. Kemi’s strategy has been always to avoid such language. Suella is essentially developing a British version of Trump’s Maga. Kemi doesn’t want that red baseball cap vibe at all.”

Hence, the events she does not attend are as significant as those she does. She steered well clear of the eye-wateringly right-wing National Conservatism Conference in May, where Braverman was the star turn. Badenoch also surprised many members of the global technocratic elite by turning up at the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos.

Increasingly, her approach is described around Westminster as “soft right”—though, in this case, the softness is relative. She may not be as Trumpesque as Braverman, but she is still ready to countenance withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and was a strong supporter of Sunak’s postponement of net-zero targets.

Most significant of all, perhaps, is the ending of her close alliance with Gove, who some MPs expected to play the role of Keith Joseph to Badenoch’s Thatcher. In November, the Times reported that Badenoch “has had a significant falling out with Michael Gove after he had an affair with an acquaintance of hers.” 

But there was more to it than a row over a romance, I am told. “We’re not as close as we were,” she told one fellow Tory recently. “Michael said some silly things.” Meaning what? “This time will not be a trial run,” says another MP. “Kemi has started to think that Gove is too mercurial and sometimes toxic. Remember how he stabbed Boris in the back in 2016 at the last moment?” So: exit Gove, stage right.

As for Labour, the party takes Badenoch seriously. According to a senior member of the shadow cabinet: “She still has the aura of being a new kind of Tory and that’s always unsettling to face across the despatch box. Keir has seen off two Conservative leaders, and he’s planning on seeing off a third pretty soon. But of the available successors to Sunak, she’s one we have to keep an eye on.”

The Kemi Badenoch of today is certainly a more ruthless, wily and weathered figure than the smiling novice of 2022. She is in it to win it. “I’m not a difficult woman,” she said at the Tory conference, “but I do like doing difficult things.” And with that, it is hard to disagree: the political job she is now seeking may be the most difficult of the lot.