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19 July

Kemi Badenoch was the anti-groupthink candidate the Tories didn’t know they needed

It takes guts to defy your in-group, and Badenoch has done so again and again.

By Louise Perry

Kemi Badenoch is out of the race to become Conservative leader. It was never likely that she would secure one of the two places in the final round, despite the endorsements of senior Conservatives including Michael Gove. Nevertheless, I rather hoped that she might defy the odds.

I wasn’t alone in that. If Badenoch, 42, the MP for Saffron Walden in Essex, had made it through to face the party members’ vote, she could well have become our next prime minister. Polling of Conservative Party members has revealed strong support for her: before her elimination, unscientific but closely watched surveys by ConservativeHome found Badenoch to be the clear favourite.

This was interesting, to say the least. Conservative Party members are disproportionately male, middle aged or elderly, and white, and are also significantly more socially conservative than the average Tory MP. And yet they were apparently eager to elect a prime minister of Nigerian heritage who would have been the third woman to hold the post and the first member of an ethnic minority.

Had she become prime minister, it is very unlikely that Badenoch would have been crowing about this landmark achievement. Among all the would-be leadership contestants, she was the one most vocally opposed to the set of political opinions broadly defined as “woke”. She made headlines in 2021 for challenging the consensus that institutional racism is widespread in the UK. Badenoch loudly rejects an analysis of society that celebrates a black woman achieving political success purely because she is a black woman.

It is no surprise that, in this leadership contest, Badenoch was defined as the “anti-woke candidate”. Her focus on culture war topics – in particular trans rights issues such as gender-neutral toilets and self-ID – was criticised as an irrelevant distraction compared with the war in Ukraine and worsening cost-of-living crisis. I don’t deny that there are some anti-woke warriors who are far too obsessive about trivia, but Badenoch’s stance on so-called culture war issues makes me respect her more for a simple reason, and this could be the same reason she proved so unexpectedly popular with Tory members: it suggests that she is unusually resistant to groupthink. 

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In a set of experiments carried out by the psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s, a group of research participants was asked to compare the length of different lines, not realising that interspersed in the group were actors who would deliberately give incorrect answers. Asch’s key finding was that the majority opinion made a significant difference to the answers participants gave because a sizeable proportion bowed to group pressure and gave the incorrect response despite the evidence of their own eyes.  

I would wager that several of the candidates for Tory leader would have fallen into the trap laid in the Asch experiments. Penny Mordaunt would certainly have done so: her much-discussed 2021 book, Greater, offers a stunningly superficial worldview, betraying not a hint of substance behind the slogans. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss both served in Boris Johnson’s cabinet for months after it was abundantly clear the mistakes he was making and the damage he was doing to the party. Plenty of other senior Tories likewise seem prone to accept consensus thinking – the government’s blunders in the early stages of the pandemic has been attributed, by Dominic Cummings and others, to precisely this failing.  

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Susceptibility to groupthink is a terrible quality in a leader, and I think – although I may be wrong on this – that Badenoch does not share it. It takes guts to defy your in-group, and Badenoch has done so again and again, not just by being a black Conservative but by demonstrating how wrong her critics are in the assumptions often made about ethnic minority people in politics. To my mind, her attitude towards the war on “woke” is a good indication of how she would respond to every other war she might have encountered as leader.

This loss is probably a blessing for Badenoch. After 14 years in power the Conservative Party is in a shambolic state and thoroughly deserves to lose the next election. This way, that will happen with someone else at the helm. But the Tories should be on the look-out for free thinkers like Badenoch who stand by their beliefs even if that challenges the established orthodoxy. The next time they’re in power, they’re going to need them.

[See also: As Liz Truss surges, who is Labour’s dream Tory opponent?]