Who’d have guessed that a softball question – “what’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?” – could cause such trouble for Conservative MPs? After Theresa May was widely mocked in the run up to the general election for her embarrassingly tame “running through fields of wheat” response, Kemi Badenoch became the second of the party’s MP to fall foul of the question, when she confessed to hacking into Harriet Harman’s website when she was 28-years-old.
The easy reaction is to point out the mismatch between Badenoch’s rhetoric on law and order – she recently equated clamping down on illegal stop and search with letting people “get away” with bad behaviour – and the fact that she has got away with an apology, but the more interesting thing about the question is that it has caught out one politician who is at the very top of her field and another who is regularly tipped to reach there one day. (Not least because the gap between “banal” and “criminal behaviour as an adult” is quite large.)
In some ways, Theresa May was the victim of bad timing more than anything else. If the remarks had come before her disastrous election campaign, it would have been hailed as an example of the things people liked about her: that she was dull, straitlaced and incredibly earnest. Instead, because it came slap-bang in the middle of it, it became an example of the things people disliked: that she was robotic and a bit odd.
Badenoch has the problem that frankly the hype when she arrived at Westminster is starting to settle down to a more natural level. She’s an eloquent advocate of the things the Conservative Party wants to hear about itself, which is enough to guarantee advance up the frontbench and even the leadership either at or immediately after the fag-end of a long period in government. She’s not a politician who can “reach out”, in that fraught phrase, to people who voted Conservative in 2015 but not in 2017, an analysis that much of Westminster seems to have based on her biography and not much else. Earlier, in somewhat eyebrow-raising interviews – a somewhat bizarre argument for increasing the number of people being stopped and searched, her defence of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign, an interview on sexual harassment and Friends – all displayed the same tin ear that “Hah! What larks! I hacked into someone’s website” does.
What we’re seeing – which we tend to see with whichever new MP gets the unlucky role of being tapped as the Next Big Thing – is that eventually, the hype and the reality reach a natural equilibrium. Say goodbye to Kemi Badenoch, the next great Conservative election winner, say hello to Kemi Badenoch, the Conservative right’s happy warrior.
That said, Theresa “Fields of Wheat” May would tell her to be relieved if the correction in her market value is merely that limited.