Kemi Badenoch has not been on any reality TV show. Nor was she President of the Oxford Union.
The impression was that the next Conservative leader would come from nowhere, and might not possibly the most obvious suspect. Rishi Sunak, it seems, always has somewhat fancied himself as ‘man of the people’. Few can remember the viral video where he discusses his favourite soft drink. But he is associated in some people’s minds as being associated with fundamentally un-conservative, some might say socialist, principles. He also, as an output of Winchester College, Oxford and Goldmann Sachs, a somewhat dubious product of social mobility.
The knives are out. And worse than that, he is not Boris Johnson’s preferred candidate – even if he has the backing of sun lounger Dominic Raab. It is possibly Liz Truss’ time where every week was ‘rollover’ week – a new (but old) international trade deal. Truss is considered the safe pair of ‘establishment’ hands – a former ‘Remainer’ who has made good her Brexiteer credentials. In other words, nobody quite knows how she is going to tackle Brexit as part of Britain’s new global outward-facing rôle in the world. Truss is incredibly astute at avoiding difficult questions. For example, when confronted with ‘If Ukraine, why not Taiwan?’, Truss recoils into a state of clever word-play and keeping all options open.
Some were clearly bound to fall by the way-side. For example, Grant Shapps was not able to manage simultaneously a high-level industrial dispute and being a Prime Ministerial candidate. Some might say that he could not even manage the high-level industrial debate. It only took Mick Lynch a few days to make Shapps look utterly ineffective. Suella Braverman is still going strong, with the ERG seal of approval; but her stance on universal credit, as well as the threatened departure from the European Convention of Human Rights, promises to put off even the most mild-mannered and risk-averse Tory.
Kemi Badenoch MP doesn’t need to be an expert in every single subject. Her quest for the truth may seem somewhat evangelical, but it seems sincere. Despite Michael Gove finding her ‘phenomenal’, she seems to have captured the attention of many so early on in this hapless leadership contest. It is easy to find fault with her positions on gender recognition or critical race theory but you can’t fault her for articulating a clear reaction. Nor can she be faulted with her concerns about the online safety bill and the threats of censorship.
I find some of Badenoch’s intellectual positions a bit problematic – but so would anyone. The US difficulties with ‘culture wars’ range from gun control to abortion, or even freedom of speech. Whilst it is an easy knee jerk reaction to avoid discussion of all of these matters, known issues since the 1920s, citing that one should resist the Americanisation of politics, this gives the impression that these issues do not matter. Whilst unisex toilets for some may not ‘matter’ as such, the issue of identity politics reflects differences in beliefs held extremely important to some. They might have relevance to safety in a hospital or prison, or other spaces. Avoiding a debate altogether, and not even clearly stating various alternative positions, did not work for Brexit. They are strictly speaking not “minority debates”. So for Kemi Badenoch to be one of the eight candidates to confront these issues, whether or not you think these are ‘common sense issues’, is to her credit.
It is easy to find fault with her thesis on ‘culture wars’, but one assumes that a Badenoch administration would apply systems-thinking to the NHS, social care reconfiguration, or the ‘cost of living’ crisis. Badenoch seems to understand that you cannot have a race to the bottom for ‘low taxation’ without a discussion of the fundamentals of the economy. But in firing up the base, and in seeking the ‘truth’, she already has conceded that the solution does not just include efficiency savings. This, of course, was THE popular dogma in the NHS a decade ago. But she has already alluded to redefining what the public sector does. This is nothing very fundamentally new, but a welcome admission all the same.
Badenoch is obviously not arguing that ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ are unimportant. We broadly agree that they are very important. What she is arguing, however, they have lost their way; this is already acknowledged in business management, where more effort is put into diversity marketing than the actual outcomes (such as recruitment or retention of non-White doctors in the NHS).
Badenoch is refreshing intellectually as she is also willing to turn to ‘off limits’ topics. Firstly, she is not opposed to University education, but does not want, for example, for a system which overproduces too many graduates in law to become ultimately unemployable. Presumably she would find the excessive salaries of some vice-chancellors in Universities unconscionable too. Secondly, she does not have a blanket contempt for environmental issues, but likewise wants a sensible debate on ‘net zero’. Whisper it quietly, but so would many of Keir Starmer’s potential voters too.
Furthermore, diversity is more about action rather than words. It is deeply racist to suggest that Badenoch or Sunak would not be welcome as leaders of the Conservative Party. And indeed that Party should be given credit that they have legitimately made the cut on their own merits, so far. If ever there was a time not to be ‘pale, male or stale’, this might be it. OK, Diane Abbott may not be the pin-up for diversity any more and not all of her critics were racist (but many were, some argue). But nobody can deny that a Labour opposition led by Starmer, who professes no positions and all positions simultaneously, would have immense difficulty with Badenoch. Also, given that Starmer voted 48 times to oppose Brexit, as we keep on being reminded, Starmer does not have a legitimate voice in the Brexit debate for many.
I have never voted Conservative. I don’t want to wait any longer for Starmer to reveal himself. And there’s a part of me which thinks that: if somebody tells you who he is, believe him.
Many traditionally on the ‘left’ will have a good feeling about Kemi Badenoch, and if it is not her right time now – it soon will be.