Kemi Badenoch will be the new Tory leader's secret weapon

20 July 2022

7:52 PM

20 July 2022

7:52 PM

There was an unmistakable whiff of an Addams Family portrait about the cabinet photocall that marked the final gathering of Boris Johnson’s top team. Surrounding the departing Prime Minister were many ministers who will have suspected that they are not going to be in the same ministerial positions, or perhaps any ministerial position, when 10 Downing Street is under new management.

To what extent, for example, can Nadhim Zahawi put together any kind of economic agenda, given his disastrous first fortnight as chancellor? His first few days in office saw him pledge an arbitrary tax-cutting timetable before his leadership hopes promptly collapsed amid reports that his own tax affairs were under investigation.


Those Johnson arch-loyalists Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg may reasonably suspect their continued shelf-life as major frontbenchers depends entirely on Liz Truss emerging triumphant from the leadership contest. Priti Patel is becalmed as Home Secretary given that her flagship Rwanda policy has been put on hold at least until the autumn.

Meanwhile those brought in simply to plug gaps left by recent mass-resignations, including Shailesh Vara and Greg Clark, are not so naïve as to think they have time to put down roots.

‘The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,’ wrote the political theorist Antonio Gramsci, which may seem harsh when applied to this motley crew, but nicely captures the sense of interregnum.

The new world, we know, will be born in early September. And one politician bound to feature heavily in it will be Kemi Badenoch, the former equalities minister who so exceeded expectations during a leadership campaign that confidently fed core Conservative principles to a party grown weary of a dreary diet of accommodations with progressives.

Badenoch managed to articulate for the Tories the sense of what John Prescott once dubbed within Labour as ‘traditional values in a modern setting’. Without ever appearing out-of-date or so right-wing as to alienate majority opinion, she spoke up convincingly for smaller and leaner government, immigration control, bolstering the institution of the family, freedom of expression and respect for the nation state.

After seeing her cabinet claims studiously overlooked by Johnson during several reshuffles, she is all but guaranteed a plum post in the new regime after having forced herself centre-stage. As someone who understands her own worth, including as an analytical thinker, she is unlikely to sell herself cheaply either.

She could easily become the new Michael Gove – the next administration’s big strategic brain – should the old Michael Gove finally be allocated to a great office of state. Or she could be given a major portfolio herself, perhaps health or education with the equalities brief thrown in for good measure.

It will be fascinating to see whether the next prime minister has the confidence to allow Badenoch to shape the personality of the administration or ends up fearing her rock star popularity with the party membership and ability to communicate a distinctly Conservative sense of mission.

It is this last factor that has most endeared her to many long-serving grassroots members who still smart at the memory of being dubbed ‘the nasty party’ by Theresa May because of their core social conservatism. While May swallowed whole some flawed and faddish progressive approaches on issues such as gender self-ID or stop-and-search, Johnson often appeared entirely uninterested in political first principles, thinking his own giant personality sufficient to keep any show on the road.

While Badenoch has not yet publicly endorsed any of the remaining candidates, it is clear that she takes a contrary view to Penny Mordaunt about how to approach the tenets of the her left-wing opponents. Put simply, one wants to beat them, the other to join them. It is quite clear which approach will command majority support among Tories out in the country.

This ‘culture war’ agenda is far from all-encompassing for Badenoch, but she is never going to tap dance around it either. As one source close to her recently told me: ‘She didn’t become an MP to fight the identitarian left, she just had to do it because so many of the others are cowards.’

Mercifully, this age of Conservative cowardice may be drawing to a close. Kemi Badenoch’s gate-crashing of the inner-sanctum won’t change the formidable list of challenges facing the next PM, but it will mean that a sense of mission is likely to be restored.

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