Kemi Badenoch’s last chance

19 July 2022

4:26 PM

19 July 2022

4:26 PM

Kemi Badenoch has one last chance. With Tom Tugendhat out on Monday evening, the MP for Saffron Walden is now bringing up the rear in the contest to replace Boris Johnson. With 58 votes from MPs, Badenoch is still substantially behind the third-placed Liz Truss on 71, with Penny Mordaunt coming second on 82 and Rishi Sunak far in the lead on 115.

This would seem to confirm that Tory MPs want to offer their members a choice between A New Boris (Sunak) and either The Maybot Strikes Back (Mordaunt) or Return of the Maggie (Truss). Sunak and Mordaunt are continuity candidates and a victory for either would signal that the Tories have not changed and, in fact, see no need to change. The message sent would be: we hope you’ve enjoyed the past 12 years because there’s more where that came from.

Truss would represent something different but not necessarily something popular. She is the think-tank candidate, the one brimming with cutting-edge, left-field, sometimes half-baked and occasionally semi-mad ideas about identifying verticals and streamlining deliverables. Given half the chance, I suspect she could introduce some much needed, foundational reforms to the operation of government. I’m just not convinced it would occur to anyone to vote for her.

It’s not difficult to see how Labour, with the help of a sympathetic media and civil society, will frame each of them in the next election. Sunak: Rishi Rich, out of touch, the wrong man for economic hard times, tainted by Boris but lacking his common touch. Mordaunt: shallow, unprincipled, flip-flopper, Theresa May without the gravitas, not up to the job. Truss: Thatcherite head girl, political weirdo, hapless, heartless, in over her head.

Of course MPs are drawn to the least disruptive candidates, the ones who most closely resemble recent party leaders. They want an easy life, they don’t want to take a risk. Ironically, in doing so, a fair number of them are gambling with their easy life — and their relatively safe seat.

Which brings us back to Kemi Badenoch. She is the candidate Labour would struggle to define and therefore struggle to defeat. Her relative anonymity is not a weakness, but a strength. A fresh face is as good as a change of government and with her at the helm an administration creaking along after 12 years and with little to show for it would suddenly seem new. The instinct to give her the benefit of the doubt would be much stronger than with a familiar personality like Sunak or Truss. Her ability to drive Labour into paroxysms of fringe, freakish, identitarian rage while looking on, sweetly innocent, is damn near a superpower given how far down the identity politics rabbit hole Labour has gone. This stands in contrast to Mordaunt, who is burrowed deep while insisting the rabbit hole doesn’t exist.

But Badenoch cannot rely on ability alone. This is the Tory party, after all. Merit has very little to do with it. Badenoch has to give MPs reasons to put her on the final ballot — or, rather, reasons to fear not putting her on there. She is by far the most impressive candidate in this contest but she is campaigning almost entirely on the philosophical plane. If there is anything standing between her and No. 10, it is not only Tory MPs but her own failure to provide specifics.

We know what she believes. Her fondness for Thomas Sowell tells us that. If nothing else, she would be the first Tory leader to have read A Conflict of Visions, which says as much about the Tory party as it does about her. But she has been altogether too big-think, too values driven for a leadership contest in a party that last had an original idea when the Human League were in the charts.

Badenoch offers a break from 12 years of the Tories being in office but not in power, a rare chance to renew and replenish from the Treasury benches. She has to spell out how she plans to do that. That she hasn’t so far indicates one of two things: either she doesn’t have a plan or the plan she has is so radical it would frighten the horses if it got out. Which it is, I don’t know.

Badenoch needn’t provide her own Hoskyns wiring diagram but she does need some policy themes, rhetorical capsules that sum up what she wants to do in key areas, with broadly worded hints about how she intends to do these things. Instead of saying Brexit is done — which it manifestly is not — she needs a policy theme on completing what Boris started and, crucially, addressing the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol. She should be the candidate of bringing out all the untapped potential from Brexit while restoring to the people of Northern Ireland the equal opportunities and provisions to the rest of the UK that they are entitled to enjoy.

She needs a policy theme on the Union, not only rejecting Nicola Sturgeon’s rebel referendum but recognising that Sturgeon will continue using the devolution settlement to try to tear the UK apart until Westminster legislates to stop her. Badenoch should champion such legislation. (I have written extensively on how to do this.)

Another essential policy theme is on immigration. The Tories are at risk of throwing away one of the legacies of Brexit that even Remainers can get behind: a softening of attitudes on immigration. Those attitudes will harden again if the Tories cannot regain control of our borders, a basic, even definitional, duty of government. Badenoch needs to make clear that only she will stop the boats, stop abuse of the asylum system, and stop the over-application of Article 8 in deportation cases. For a policy theme, she could do a lot worse than the one John Howard put before Australian voters in 2001: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’

Finally, Badenoch needs a policy theme on opportunity. The Tory party is for giving anyone who works for it the chance to become middle class, or it is for nothing. If she wants to be Prime Minister, Badenoch has to articulate a vision of expanding home ownership, supporting families, giving young people an alternative to being expensively miseducated at a dismal degree factory, and making it easier for people to start small and micro businesses.

Kemi Badenoch could save the Tory party from a generation or two in opposition. (Yes, really, those are the stakes.) But she has to want it and if she wants it, she has to take it. MPs will not put her on the members’ ballot just because she’s the candidate with the best chance of beating Labour. She will have to tell them — make them — put her through to the final round. They think she is too young, too inexperienced. She has to show them she is already a leader, a prime minister in waiting.

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