The Tories Will Regret Rejecting Kemi Badenoch

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‘Her insurgent campaign offered glimpses of a new brand of unapologetic and forthright conservatism’

In the adrenaline stakes, the Tory leadership race was never going to be a summer blockbuster to rival Top Gun: Maverick, but today it feels even less exciting.

Both Kemi Badenoch – knocked out yesterday – and Tom Tugendhat, eliminated on Monday, were, in different ways, the only candidates offering a genuine break from the past. Public reaction to the TV debates suggested that they, more than any of their rivals, had managed to excite and connect with voters.

Now the contest looks drab. Imagine a box of Celebrations on Boxing Day, or the state of the supermarket sandwich aisle just before closing time. The succulent salmon and cream cheese bagels are long gone, so too the solid, dependable BLTs. Instead, an uninspiring selection awaits – all weeping lettuce and congealed crusts. Fancy a coagulated tuna sweetcorn or a soggy egg and cress? A greying chicken salad? Thought not.

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Much is made of the Tories’ animalistic lust for power – what Boris Johnson referred to in his resignation speech as “our brilliant and Darwinian system”. But the current shape of the race raises the question of whether the Conservative Party is even serious about winning.

In rejecting the fresh faces Labour would have struggled to pin down, MPs have opted for candidates closely associated with the record and ideology of the Johnson, May and even Cameron administrations. Now, the choice of “clean break” PM will probably come down to the two most senior members of the incumbent Cabinet. It is a baffling outcome which suggests the Tories may be genuinely fatigued after 12 years in office, with very little to show for it.

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Perhaps in the midst of numerous economic crises, it makes sense for the Tory establishment to plump for experience. But choosing the status quo carries risks of its own. Kemi Badenoch in particular was not just the members’ favourite, she had invigorated the debate at a time when many voters desperately wanted a fresh start. Her insurgent campaign was offering glimpses of a new brand of conservatism – forthright, unapologetic, and articulated in plain English rather than politician-ese.

It represented an existential threat to many of the Left’s favourite assumptions and talking-points, such as the idea that the Conservative Party (and British society more generally) was inherently racist, or that the Brexit vote was solely a matter of nativism and imperial nostalgia.

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Not for nothing did her campaign spark “Badenoch derangement syndrome” in nominally sensible people, and send previously hysterical ones into apoplexy.

Her departure narrows the race in another crucial way; the scope of topics under discussion. She, more than anyone, was willing to challenge Tory orthodoxies, from the Online Safety Bill and its alarming free speech implications, to the sanctity of net zero. Though backing the latter in principle, Badenoch took a refreshingly pragmatic approach – arguing that she would be willing to delay the 2050 deadline and wouldn’t impoverish the poorest or bankrupt the economy in the process.

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She rejected the “cakeism” and easy solutions of some of her colleagues, insisting that tax cuts be accompanied with systemic reform and an understanding that the state cannot do everything.

Tory and Labour can sometimes seem interchangeable – disagreeing vehemently with each other, yet offering many of the same policy solutions and speaking a homogenous language. In Badenoch, however, there seemed a genuine choice.

Some commentators criticised Badenoch’s passion for “culture war topics” on the basis that the public cares more about the cost of living – an argument which leads to the somewhat patronising conclusion that the average voter is only capable of computing one issue at a time. But though it shouldn’t be to the exclusion of economic policy, issues like sex-based rights and free speech are important battles which conservatives and all reasonable people must fight, not least because we often didn’t start them.

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When the commentariat urges those on the Right not to wage culture wars, they usually mean we should roll over and concede defeat to the Left. People like Badenoch, who have thought deeply about these matters, who can argue eloquently and with some personal experience, will be essential in defending rational positions in the years to come.

Kemi Badenoch will no doubt merit a major role in the next Cabinet. As she shows what she’s capable of, I suspect many Tories will regret not choosing her this time round.

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But if we’re looking for a silver lining, perhaps we are seeing a future race play out today – Tugendhat and Badenoch may well be the two names sent to the members’ ballot in 2024, or 2028. Based on how they’ve performed in this contest, that would be no bad thing.

In this pair of principled and impressive politicians, there are promising signs that the traditions of the party’s Left and Right still have much to offer. Either way, let us hope we won’t be left with curled-up sandwiches for too long.

NB: Madeline Grant, a parliamentary sketchwriter wrote this piece for The UK Telegraph

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