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How Kemi Badenoch became the Tory front-runner

Can she win the Conservative leadership by appealing to both the right and moderates?

By Rachel Cunliffe

Kemi Badenoch received an early present two days before her 44th birthday. On New Year’s Eve, she topped a ConservativeHome poll of party members’ preferred next leader. Thirty-eight per cent of respondents backed the Business and Trade Secretary to replace Rishi Sunak, compared with 23 per cent for the sword-carrying Penny Mordaunt and just 15 per cent for the former home secretary Suella Braverman.

At the Conservative Party conference last October, it was almost impossible to speculate about the next leader without Badenoch’s name coming up (alongside Boris Johnson and – more contentiously – Nigel Farage). She is also the bookies’ favourite to replace Sunak – and has been since June.

Sunak may remain nominally in charge, but a shadow Tory leadership contest is under way. Since her unsuccessful bid in 2022, Badenoch has cemented herself as Sunak’s de facto successor (assuming he leads the Tories to defeat at the next election). That she has avoided being tainted by the Prime Minister’s unpopularity or falling out with him is remarkable.

As one Westminster insider wryly remarked, “Tory MPs are resigned to spending this year sucking up to Kemi.”

Born in Wimbledon, south-west London, to parents of Nigerian origin, but raised for much of her childhood in Lagos and the US, the MP for Saffron Walden has described herself as “to all intents and purposes a first-generation immigrant”. After working in consultancy and financial services and as digital director for the Spectator magazine, she first represented the Conservatives in the London Assembly, and was one of the few new Tory MPs elected in 2017. Badenoch’s maiden speech alluded to her experience growing up in a country where democracy could not be taken for granted. That autumn, she introduced Theresa May onstage for her ill-fated party conference speech. This, allies say, was when Badenoch first attracted significant media attention.

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She became the party’s vice-chair for candidates in 2018. (One of her first acts was to remove her husband, Hamish, a banker and former Conservative councillor, from the candidates list – something she later cited as a demonstration of her integrity.) Badenoch, as a vocal Brexiteer and “anti-woke” warrior, quickly earned a reputation for being “straight-talking”, and was already being tipped as a future leader when May resigned in 2019.

After Boris Johnson entered Downing Street, he gave Badenoch her first government job, as a junior minister for children and families. Then she was moved to the Treasury after Rishi Sunak’s appointment as chancellor in February 2020. Johnson also handed her the high-profile equalities brief – a role she held until July 2022, when she joined more than 50 ministers in resigning to force his departure.

Her decision to stand in the leadership race to replace Johnson, despite never having held a cabinet post, sparked what some called “Kemi fever”, especially after she won the endorsement of arch-strategist Michael Gove. Before Badenoch was eliminated by Tory MPs in the fourth round of voting, polls by both YouGov and ConservativeHome predicted that in a head-to-head vote among Tory members she would beat Liz Truss, Sunak and Mordaunt.

But today, the political landscape looks very different. Badenoch is no longer a fresh insurgent, but a cabinet minister associated with the Truss and Sunak administrations under which the Tories’ poll ratings have plummeted. Her seemingly impeccable Brexit credentials were questioned in March last year when she watered down the Retained EU Law Bill, U-turning on the promise that all EU laws would be repealed by the end of 2023 unless actively retained.

She and Gove are reported to have fallen out, allegedly over an affair he had with a friend of hers, though her critics suggest the relationship had broken down earlier because Gove lost faith in his prodigy. (Her allies, meanwhile, argue that Gove’s original endorsement was “overhyped” and that it is in Badenoch’s interests to distance herself from such a controversial figure.)  

The Conservative Party has changed too. Sunak, a Thatcherite who campaigned to leave the EU, has been denounced as a centrist and a Brexit-betrayer by many of his MPs. His cabinet is mostly made up of moderates. Meanwhile, the right of the party is split into factions – the “Five Families”, as they have become known, ranging from free-market Trussites to traditional social conservatives, united only by their strong support of Brexit.

Could Badenoch be the leader to unite them in opposition?

Badenoch’s selling point is her ability to appeal to the right’s divided tribes without entirely alienating centrists. To position herself as a “sensible right-winger” who One Nation moderates and government ministers will take seriously, she has kept her interventions to a minimum. On Sunak’s Rwanda plan, in contrast to Braverman and the former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, she kept any misgivings to herself. During the November reshuffle in which Braverman was sacked and David Cameron appointed Foreign Secretary, the only comment she made was to lament the sacking of her friend Rachel Maclean as housing minister. (Maclean’s replacement, Lee Rowley, is another close ally; he ran Badenoch’s campaign in 2022.)  

Badenoch is also known to be particularly close to the One Nation heavyweight and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, whose endorsement in the next leadership contest would be valuable. But for all Badenoch’s attempts to appeal to Tory centrists, her natural base is with the right of the party – and here, work is already under way.

The Five Families of Tory rebels are: the European Research Group (ERG, the original Brexiteers); the Conservative Growth Group (free-market Trussites); the Common Sense Group (“anti-woke” right-wingers, led by Braverman’s mentor John Hayes); the New Conservatives (a post-2019 faction led by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates focused on reducing immigration) and the Northern Research Group (which originates from the Tories’ advance in the Red Wall).

While members of each group have their own favourites (Braverman is strong among the ERG, for example), Badenoch has been working hard to cement her position as a consensus candidate: on the right, but not too on the right. She won some early backers from the Common Sense Group in 2022, receiving Hayes’ endorsement after Braverman was eliminated, and though she avoided the National Conservatism conference in May, Kruger publicly defended her after she was criticised by Brexiteers for compromises over the Retained EU Law Bill.

Badenoch is also closely connected with the free-market think tank scene that was integral to the rise of Truss. Alex Morton, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) and formerly of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), was head of policy on her first leadership campaign, and they remain close. James Roberts, the former managing director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), ran Badenoch’s “Excel spreadsheet” of MP endorsements in 2022, and became her special adviser in June 2023 – sparking accusations that she had hired a “campaign manager” and was on “leadership manoeuvres”. At the 2023 party conference in October, Badenoch was the headline speaker at both the CPS and joint IEA-TPA drinks receptions, where she listed her achievements in international trade and rhapsodised about the opportunities of Brexit.  

A reputation in Westminster as a right-wing firebrand has undoubtedly helped Badenoch attract support from the party’s more radical wing. But those who know her well offer a different perspective. “She’s painted as an uber-right-winger, but she’s actually incredibly nuanced,” said one MP ally, who challenged what they consider “one-dimensional reporting” about her. They described Badenoch as “genuinely unique”, and particularly well-suited to taking on a defeated party, someone invested in “crafting a version of Conservatism that works beyond factions”.

“Assertive” but “not rigidly ideological” was the assessment of a former adviser, who recalled being impressed by Badenoch’s approach at the Department for Business and Trade: encouraging debate and a range of views among her officials and advisers, open to being challenged and – crucially – to having her opinions changed when the evidence did (although they stressed she still very much knew her own mind). Multiple people close to the Business and Trade Secretary stressed her interest in “detail” – something they noted fitted with her STEM background (in contrast to the PPE degree ubiquitous among her peers, Badenoch has a Master’s in engineering). The word “nuanced” is often used about her, as are “forensic” and “methodical”.

This is all rather at odds with the portrayal from critics: that Badenoch is brittle, arrogant and using her super-department as a platform to win the leadership rather than to enact key policy change. Rumours abound of her being “lazy” (not reading documents, letting subordinates do the work), and taking only a surface-level interest in the less glitzy aspects of her role (working with businesses to upgrade Britain’s electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, for example).

In part, this discrepancy may be due to the sheer breadth of policy areas her role covers after the merger of the business and international trade departments. (An adviser suggested she spent so much time putting her head down to get on top of her brief when she first became Trade Secretary that she didn’t have as much of a chance to get out and about.) But it may also reflect a clash of personalities. Badenoch is “not a natural networker”, as one Tory strategist diplomatically put it, and has a tendency to antagonise colleagues. Her combative – some say abrasive, even rude – communication style has got her into trouble: in May 2023 she was reprimanded by the Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle for apparent sarcasm in her apology for announcing the U-turn on EU law to the Telegraph before she did it in parliament. Such incidents have helped raise her profile with the public, but they could harm her when canvassing endorsements among MPs. “Not the sort of person to go into the Commons tea rooms and charm people,” was the verdict of an ally.

That said, this “tell-it-like-it-is, straight-talking” attitude is part of what makes her seem refreshing to her supporters, who praise her “clarity of thought”. Her willingness to take on the culture wars has impressed Conservatives in Westminster and beyond. One ally suggested that, as a black woman, Badenoch can speak against the “woke agenda” with more authority than her colleagues. Those on the right of the party took note of her statement to parliament after being reappointed as equalities minister in October 2022: “The Equality Act is a shield, not a sword.”

The contentious issue of gender identity is, an aide told me, one of Badenoch’s “genuine passions”. It is also useful as a subject on which she can display her conservative credentials without undermining her boss, the Prime Minister. In early December, on the day Jenrick resigned as immigration minister in protest at Sunak’s Rwanda bill, Badenoch was making headlines on another subject entirely. In her role as Women and Equalities Minister, she told MPs that gender-affirming care was “a new form of conversion therapy” and warned of an “epidemic” of gay children being told they are trans. Her comments sparked a furious backlash from the opposition: a week later, the Labour MP Kate Osborne denounced Badenoch for likening children coming out as trans to the spread of disease; Badenoch responded by accusing Osborne of “lying”.

Whether or not the word “epidemic” implies “disease” is beside the point: Badenoch found herself lauded by right-wing titles as an anti-woke crusader at exactly the moment when divisions over Rwanda were fracturing the Conservative Party. She used her position as a culture wars champion to stay above the fray.

If the Tories lose the general election as expected, and Badenoch makes the final two in the contest to replace Sunak, MPs from across the Tory spectrum – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – agree it’s a “no-brainer” that she’ll become the next leader. She is incredibly popular with the Conservative membership, whose vote – under the current election rules – would at that stage be decisive. Reaching that point, however, will take work.

For all her friends across the party, she will never be the One Nation group’s preferred candidate – that will most likely be Penny Mordaunt, or perhaps James Cleverly as a “caretaker” moderate. Braverman’s star has fallen after her explosive exit from government, but Jenrick’s has risen; both are competing with Badenoch to be the right’s standard-bearer. The ERG doesn’t appear to have the numbers to elevate its own candidate (the much-hyped rebellion over the Rwanda bill in December amounted to just a few dozen abstentions), but the more Sunak alienates his backbenchers, the more Badenoch is tarnished by her presence in his government.

Kemi Badenoch’s decision to triangulate – appealing to different party factions as right wing but “sensible” – might backfire, leaving her with the support of neither. Her communication style and propensity to needle colleagues could cause issues, especially as the pressure on the Tories intensifies in an election year. Already, her positioning for the leadership – hiring Roberts, touring think tanks, championing trade achievements – has attracted criticism from fellow Tories, who consider her presumptive and entitled.

But allies argue her grasp of detail and nuance and her sharp-tongued assertiveness are a powerful combination – one that could help the Conservatives recover in opposition faster than expected currently. “If I were Labour, I’d be worried,” one told me. “There’s a reason she’s the bookies’ favourite.”

[See also: Inside the One Nation Tory fightback]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge