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LONDON — Suddenly, everyone in the Conservative Party wants to be friends with Kemi Badenoch.
While the former equalities minister looks a long shot in the ongoing race to replace Boris Johnson as Tory leader and U.K. prime minister this summer — she came fourth out of five in the second round of voting among fellow MPs last week — even her rivals acknowledge she is going places, and fast.
Badenoch’s self-styled ‘anti-woke’, small government pitch has won her plenty of admirers on the Right of the party, even among those who are backing another candidate.
With former Cabinet big-hitter Michael Gove rowing in behind her “focus, intellect and no-bullshit” approach, the Saffron Walden MP — a junior minister without Cabinet-level experience — has successfully used the contest to inject herself into the Tory consciousness long-term.
Indeed, grassroots website Conservative Home’s latest survey of party members — the group who this summer will pick the new leader from the final two candidates whittled down by MPs — gives Badenoch a double-digit lead over her closest rival.
And while most observers believe the current contest has come too soon in her career for Badenoch to make that final head-to-head, supporters insist it is still too early to write her off.
“We’re here to make the final two. Kemi is absolutely in it to win,” the MP Lee Rowley, her campaign manager, told Sky News.
Even if she fails, few believe this will be the last Westminster hears of the software engineer-turned-politician. Badenoch is already being widely tipped for a big Cabinet post in the next government, and likely another shot at the top job when the time comes.
“Running doesn’t have to mean winning,” said one admiring MP, who is backing Liz Truss for leader. “Running means getting ready to win later.”
Among Badenoch’s many assets is a compelling backstory which sets her apart from a party traditionally cast as a bastion of the U.K.’s elite.
She was born in south London, but grew up in the United States and Nigeria. Her parents are of Nigerian origin, and in her maiden speech in the House of Commons she described herself as “to all intents and purposes a first-generation immigrant.”
Badenoch returned to the U.K. at the age of 16 and worked in a branch of McDonalds while studying at a college in south London.
British politics tends to be dominated by lawyers and arts graduates, but her background in computer software suggests something fresher and more tech-savvy — even if her next steps were in a more traditional Tory direction: a move into finance, and a stint at private bank Coutt’s.
Badenoch went on to run digital operations for the right-leaning Spectator magazine so beloved by the Conservative elite, and it’s striking that her candidacy and many of her ideas have been given oxygen by the same publication. Last week the magazine’s associate editor Damian Thompson ran an article headlined simply: “Why the Tories should gamble on Kemi Badenoch.”
It would not be the first time a Spectator alumnus found their way to Downing Street, of course: Boris Johnson is a former editor of the magazine.
Badenoch is an avowed Brexiteer — which helps shore up support among the Tory grassroots — but it’s her interventions on identity and culture which have attracted the most attention.
She drew both praise and criticism for challenging the idea that there is widespread institutional racism in the U.K, and reportedly lamented that government officials tried to thwart her plan to ensure all new public buildings should have separate bathrooms for men and women.
In an article for the Times launching her leadership campaign, Badenoch claimed “identity politics is not about tolerance or individual rights, but the very opposite of our crucial and enduring British values.”
Those who admire Badenoch see a free-thinker who is hard to pigeonhole.
“There’s an awful lot of people opening their mouths and you know exactly what they’re going to say. She speaks to a sort of more insurgent freshness,” a second MP, also backing a rival contender, said. Badenoch appeals to those who feel British politics is currently somewhat stale, they added.
But Badenoch’s critics are skeptical about her ability to transform her headline-grabbing words into workable policy.
“I am sure she has strongly-held views, but my experience with many of these people is that when they get into government those headlines become less important,” one current government adviser said.
“Strong views are fine, unless you’re actually meant to put those strong views into action.”
There’s little doubt Badenoch has spooked some of her rivals, with supporters of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — who has pitched herself as the natural candidate of the Tory Right — calling on the former minister to step aside to unite their wing of the party.
The second Tory MP quoted above said the race will “get serious” this week, as lawmakers pick the final two contenders to be put to a vote of the rank-and-file Conservative members.
“I think people feel much more strongly about the choice between Rishi [Sunak] and Liz [Truss] than they do really about giving Kemi a chance,” the MP said.
But one former Tory adviser believes the current series of televised leaders’ debates will force some MPs to reassess their choices, after Truss suffered a bad night in the first TV match-up Friday night.
“MPs will be spooked by how badly Liz did in the [first] debate,” the former adviser said. “She looked very strange and wooden and nervous, and that will worry MPs.
“Penny [Mordaunt] has suffered a lot from the additional scrutiny of the last few days,” they added, referring to the serving international trade minister who was, according to polling, streets ahead with members only last week.
That sense of momentum may have been fuelled by a second TV debate Sunday night, in which Badenoch successfully scored points with an unexpected attack on the frontrunner Sunak, her former boss from her days as a junior Treasury minister, whom she accused of failing to take seriously warnings about mass fraud related to the Treasury’s coronavirus loan schemes.
But even if Badenoch doesn’t make it through to the final head-to-head this week, few in the party doubt that her future is bright — and that a significant Cabinet post now awaits.
“The dynamic of the race has damaged some people’s reputations,” the former adviser quoted above said. “Hers isn’t one of them.”