The case for Kemi

10 July 2022

8:44 PM

10 July 2022

8:44 PM

At the very top end of politics there is a vital distinction that is underappreciated whenever the case for change is being assessed. It is the difference between plausible and compelling. Tony Blair in his pomp was the latter, Gordon Brown never more than the former.

Margaret Thatcher had only to be plausible to win the 1979 election against a broken Labour Party. But once she had overseen the liberation of the Falkland Islands in 1982 she became compelling and two further election wins followed, each by a landslide margin.

The case for leaving the EU became plausible after the Lisbon Treaty was steamrollered through without a promised referendum to be swiftly followed by a crisis in the eurozone which highlighted its basic design flaws. But it only became compelling when Nigel Farage’s force of personality ripped the Eurosceptic conversation out of the cosy confines of the Tory party. Once Boris Johnson’s own huge persona had been attached to an iron will to implement Brexit in the teeth of establishment resistance, he became a compelling figure too and millions of people who normally paid little attention to politics decided he was a leader they could follow.

Over the next fortnight or so, many Conservative MPs will run plausibility tests in their heads when assessing the merits of the various leadership candidates – how many years have they spent running which Whitehall departments, can they speak the language of inoffensive platitudes by which conventional political leaders communicate, would they look right were they the person shaking hands on behalf of Britain with a US President on the steps of the White House?

Despite the barbs of leftist commentators, most of those candidates have such plausibility. The smooth-talking former chancellor Rishi Sunak, for instance, is super-plausible despite never having nailed his colours to an against-the-odds cause he truly believed in. And no, his formal backing of the Leave cause in the referendum doesn’t count because it was followed by him hiding away during the actual campaign in much the same way that Theresa May did on the other side.

How plausible she seemed when appearing to be the last grown-up standing in the Tory leadership contest of 2016 only to later reveal her disastrous limitations in a general election campaign the very next year. All this is why Conservative MPs need to seek out a compelling replacement for Boris Johnson as they prepare to present to the country the not-immediately-obvious positive case for their party being granted an unprecedented fifth successive term in government.

And it is why Kemi Badenoch stands out a mile from the ranks of those more experienced figures with their conventionally well-polished CVs featuring the most expensive schools and the best universities. The fact that she is black may be the most noticeable and oft-referred to thing about her but is far from being the most important. It is her courage and seriousness of purpose, each based on an intellectual clarity which comes from having worked up a political credo from first principles, that truly marks her out.

It is her extraordinary Commons performances at the despatch box and in select committees over the past three years – holding the line against the ID politics warriors of the left and those in her own party who decided they couldn’t beat them so might as well join them instead – that have given her the springboard to enter the current leadership contest despite only having been an MP for five years.

Her back story – going from a sixth former who flipped burgers to pay her bills to an engineering graduate and then on into a promising career in IT before turning to politics – is a political marketing man’s dream. But it is just an incidental benefit. A demoralised Conservative activist base that has seen its party surrender to leftist shibboleth after leftist shibboleth over the past 20 years has been given fresh hope by the idea that this 42-year-old mother of three represents their future.

Well, the future has arrived faster than anyone expected. And now the Tory tribe – first the MPs then the wider membership – must decide which it is to be, plausible or compelling.

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