New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
  2. Conservatives
10 July 2024updated 11 Jul 2024 12:04pm

Kemi Badenoch is the early front-runner for the Tory leadership

Can the shadow housing secretary avoid the curse of being the favourite?

By Rachel Cunliffe

Kemi Badenoch was always walking a narrow path. The former business and trade secretary, now shadow housing secretary following the Conservative party’s disastrous election result, has had her eye on the leadership since she came fourth in the contest held two years ago.

Serving in such a high-status role in the cabinets of both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss (Badenoch was secretary of state for international trade in both, before Sunak added business to her brief) helped raise her profile – a remarkable accomplishment, given she only became an MP in 2017. But over the past year, as Rishi Sunak struggled to hold the Tories together in the face of a looming defeat, Badenoch’s brand has been tarnished by her role in his administration, particularly in the eyes of the party’s right-wing faction whose support she is courting.

So it’s no surprise that, just after the shadow cabinet met for the first time post-election, leaks emerged of Badenoch distancing herself from Sunak’s failures in the strongest terms possible.

She is said to have “ripped into” Sunak (now opposition leader, at least for the moment), criticising his decision to call an election earlier than expected without consulting his cabinet and blaming his decision to leave the D-Day commemoration event early for the loss of top Tories like Penny Mordaunt.

It’s not hard to make a wild stab in the dark about what direction this leak might have originated from (amusingly, Badenoch is also said to have warned of the dangers of leaking shadow cabinet meetings – oops), or what purpose it might be intended towards. The shadow race to replace Sunak, which has been playing out in the background of the past few months, kicked off in earnest the moment he announced he would be resigning as Conservative Party leader. Badenoch – along her potential fellow contenders – is getting her side of the story in early.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The mechanics of the contest are still to be determined. First the Tory party needed to appoint a new chair of the 1922 Committee, but now Bob Blackman has been elected (in a vote that had its own controversy), working out the details of the race will be top of his to-do list. Big question marks hang over how long the process should take, and whether or not Sunak should stay in post for the duration.

A survey of Tory party members on ConservativeHome has found that a majority of members want a medium-length contest, with the new leader selected by or at the party’s conference in Birmingham in September. 31.4 per cent think it should take until December, and just 16.6 per cent think it should be concluded over the summer. There is an obvious advantage to taking more time to work out what went wrong last week and choosing a new leader accordingly.

Over two thirds (68.8 per cent) want Sunak to remain leader throughout rather than appointing a caretaker. This may be down to the fact that there is no clear pick as to who that caretaker might be, nor any mechanism for them to be appointed in the interim. Keeping things as they are would, however, leave the party in the somewhat embarrassing position of having Sunak, the man who led it to its most disastrous defeat in history, front-and-centre over the next three-to-five months, including sparring weekly with the new Prime Minister Keir Starmer at PMQs. Blackman will have to decide how to balance these competing priorities, and will likely upset a lot of people in the process whatever he decides.

In the meantime, key figures on different wings of the party are fighting over the narrative. Badenoch has hers mapped out: the defeat was primarily Sunak’s fault, the result of a truly calamitous campaign that his colleagues in cabinet (namely her) did their best to mitigate but were sadly unsuccessful. This makes sense for someone whose strategy is to run as the candidate of the “sensible right”, who has strong Brexit credentials and understands the right of the party who so hate Sunak, but also has government experience and is respected, or at least accepted, by the centrists.

Other strategies are available. James Cleverly, who is still deciding whether or not to put himself forward, has taken a more upfront approach, with an op-ed in The Times out the same day as reports of the leaked cabinet meeting. In it, the shadow home secretary warns against “bitter infighting and finger pointing”, telling his party “we need to unite in order to deliver”. He makes a pitch for the centre ground, arguing “We lost voters to the left and the right, and we won’t win them all back if we narrow our offer”. He also, notably, stresses the importance of effective opposition.

Cleverly has not always been grouped in One Nation bracket of Tory centrists (he was, after all, an ardent Brexiteer), but the last few years have seen him become more associated with the moderates. He is well-liked and respected across the party, with a reputation for pragmatism and prioritising getting on with the job over jostling for influence, and is seen as a strong communicator. Now Penny Mordaunt is no longer in the running, he is (along with Tom Tugendhat) considered a potential standard bearer for the moderates, who hold the balance of power in the newly stripped down parliamentary party.

The battle to be the candidate of the right is more complicated. Former home secretary Suella Braverman has lost a significant amount of her credibility since she was sacked from Sunak’s cabinet in November. Right after the election she jetted off to Washington to give a speech at the right-wing National Conservatism conference blaming the defeat on her more liberal Conservative colleagues and calling the LGBT+ Progress flag “monstrous”. She is evidently hoping to build momentum for a second leadership bid by getting as much attention as possible, but even past allies are deserting her. Sir John Hayes, Braverman’s long-term mentor, has shifted his support to former immigration minister Robert Jenrick who quit Sunak’s government over the Rwanda bill being too weak. Braverman has branded Jenrick a “centrist Rishi supporter” from “the Left of the party”, but it’s clear she will have an uphill battle to regain her credibility. Jenrick looks far more likely to be the champion from the right, along with Priti Patel, Boris Johnson’s home secretary, who has the advantage of being untarnished by either Sunak or Truss and is also popular with party members.

Out of everyone, Badenoch remains the frontrunner – a position she has enjoyed since January. With the caveat that it is notoriously difficult to poll Conservative members (there is too little data about them to get an accurate sample), a new survey from the Party Members Project by YouGov found she had twice the support of Braverman, well ahead of any of the other probable contenders. But the favourite doesn’t always win (just ask David Davis), and a lot depends on what happens before Conservative Party members start casting their votes.

First the party must come to an understanding about what happened. The term “post-mortem” has been thrown around a lot lately – by Badenoch, by Cleverly, and by others in the wider party. Clearly, the Conservatives need to examine this election result in detail and figure out why they lost so badly before they can recover. But post-mortems are a messy and unpleasant business.

And second, the Conservatives will have to get used to being the party of opposition. None of Sunak’s likely successors have any experience of being on opposition benches. Their ability to adapt and effectively hold the Labour government to account could play a much bigger role in their chances of success than how passionately they speak in shadow cabinet meetings.

[See also: Keir Starmer beyond the wall]

Content from our partners
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges
"Heat or eat": how to help millions in fuel poverty – with British Gas Energy Trust