England’s New Conservative Superstar
Kemi Badenoch used to work at McDonalds. Now she’s become the breakout star of the Tory Party.
At a small dinner party earlier this year—months before Boris Johnson resigned and she threw her hat in the ring to become prime minister, coming closer than anyone predicted—Kemi Badenoch, the 42-year-old MP for the Essex market town of Saffron Walden, was absorbed in fixing the TV so that it played cheesy early 2000s tunes. It was confusing to have to make a TV play music, but that was the only music source that night, and she went with it until Bootylicious by Destiny’s Child and Nelly’s Hot in Here rang from the speakers.
That done, she sensed trouble in the kitchen, and went to help the host out with the overheating purple sprouting broccoli. She drank the good French wine with zest, and, over dinner, asked sharp questions about the government’s handling of Covid, and the best way for those in power to approach the trans debate.
Her demeanor in private that night matched her public persona, which, very suddenly two weeks ago, became a matter of intense public fascination.
Pundits have described Badenoch as a Tory Barack Obama, with headlines boosting her as Labour’s “worst nightmare” and the “antiwoke crusader” Britain needs. She comfortably deploys the kind of bold and direct speech about complicated ideas that seem impossible for other politicians. In other words, she speaks like a normal person. And like Obama, Badenoch is an outsider: born to Nigerian parents, raised in Lagos, she worked at McDonalds when she arrived as a teenager in the U.K.
Badenoch has garnered a fierce and widespread following, feted, in one prominent commentator’s words, with having “saved the Tories.” Last week, she beat the popular former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, 56 to 34 in a Yougov poll of Tory Party members.
She’s now out of the race for prime minister; the choice is now between Sunak and Liz Truss. But that almost seems secondary to what Kemi Badenoch has accomplished: A woman who doesn’t even hold a cabinet position has become the unequivocal star of the Tory Party.
How this happened began with—what else?—the culture war.
“What we are against is the teaching of contested political ideas as if they are accepted fact,” she thundered in a now-famous October 2020 House of Commons speech about Critical Race Theory in education, the closest thing to arresting oratory the Tory party has seen in the Commons since Margaret Thatcher. “We don’t do this with communism, we don’t do this with socialism, we don’t do it with capitalism,” she said, lambasting the promotion of CRT as “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood.”
Half the country was appalled. Half the country was blown away.
It was unsurprisingly the latter for Michael Gove, senior Tory, cabinet minister and Badenoch’s former boss (Gove was sacked by Johnson on the latter’s last night in office). “She has genuine eloquence, which comes from thinking things through from first principles,” he tells me. “Other people give the impression of ‘solidity to pure wind,’ in George Orwell’s words, but the thing about Kemi is that what she says just cuts to the essential. It feels like you’re gulping down fresh air after emerging from a fetid swamp.”
Swamp-like is a good way to describe the weather at a reception for free speech campaigners held on the House of Lords terrace earlier this month, where some 200 people sipped champagne and Pimms overlooking the Thames and pretended not to notice the sweat pouring off themselves and everyone else. Badenoch was called in at the last minute to replace a Covid-stricken Martina Navratilova, and the crowd was palpably electrified. She talked about her slow but ultimately successful battle to get a bill through parliament banning gender-neutral toilets in all public buildings in England, and in response to a cheeky question from the floor she quipped that yes, she was sure she was a woman.
Badenoch is a mother of three whose husband is the banker Hamish Badenoch (they met at the Dulwich and West Norwood Conservative club in south London in 2009). She was born Kemi Adegoke in London, where her mother had been sent from Lagos for an obstetric referral. Mother and baby immediately returned to Nigeria, and Badenoch “didn’t even know I was a British citizen” until a family friend suggested she investigate her claim to a passport. At 16, in 1996, she recalled, “things were going badly in Nigeria”—universities were closed, the economy was in freefall—and “I just needed to get out.”
Her mother had a friend who lived near London with spare room. So with the £100 given to her by her father, Badenoch headed for the U.K., attending school in a South London suburb and working in a variety of odd jobs, including at McDonalds, to support herself. She enrolled at the University of Sussex, where she got a degree in computer science in 2003. (This is unusual in a field of candidates that still tend to study history, politics, English or classics at Oxford—the alma mater of the two remaining contenders, Sunak and Truss.)
Having joined the Conservative Party in 2005 at 25 years old, she hustled and lost multiple elections, until in 2017 she was finally given the Tory safe seat of Saffron Walden. Few people outside the Westminster bubble had heard her name until that October 2020 speech, and then, in the febrile atmosphere of the post-George Floyd moment, suddenly Kemi Badenoch was all people could talk about. I remember getting a dozen texts sending links to the video from friends across the political spectrum, some secretly in love, some absolutely horrified and some openly cheering.
Badenoch has rightly made a name for herself as the candidate who is “antiwoke, loves Britain, and is not afraid to take on the ‘hateful’ Left,” as the Daily Telegraph put it, but her conservatism goes well beyond questions of culture. She voted for Brexit, she loathes over-regulation and the expanding state bequeathed by Covid, and she is wary of green policies “bankrupting” the economy.
Her political sensibilities emerged from her experience of Africa—though in the opposite way that adherents of Black Lives Matter would want. “Growing up in a place like Nigeria means you appreciate what we have in the UK and in the West,” she told me on the phone on Wednesday, after she had dropped out of the race. “One of the things I find frustrating is the ethno-nationalism that you get in many countries like Nigeria: ‘Oh, we’re going to do things our way, we’re not going to do things the Western way.’ People start looking at things like free markets and capitalism as being Western things. And actually the whole world would be in a much better place if they adopted these systems, free markets in particular,” she said. “They are still the best way of lifting people out of poverty.”
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Badenoch refuses to be a one-issue candidate, trapped by her skin color, and she admitted to me that she was “frustrated with being pigeon-holed,” as she was during the leadership campaign, as “a person who bangs on about race.” She said it seemed to her like people were “surprised” when she had ideas about “loads of things.”
“Nigeria’s influenced my views on everything, not just race. Growing up in Nigeria meant that I have very strong views on energy security and the economy, because of what inflation did to my family’s money. It made us poor, when we’d grown up not being poor,” she said. “That’s what happens in a country where you don’t run an economy properly.”
During her campaign launch speech, Badenoch proposed a plan to break up the Treasury and to oversee economic growth from the Prime Minister’s office with a new Office for Economic Growth (“a genuinely interesting and important policy idea emerges from the Conservative leadership campaign,” tweeted Stian Westlake, the CEO of the Royal Statistical Society). Such ideas hint at the influence of the MP’s hero, the “amazing” Thomas Sowell, the 92-year-old American economist. “It just goes to show how black conservatives are traduced. He’s one of the great economic thinkers of all times, he’s still alive, and people don’t talk about him, they don’t know him, because there’s too much of a focus on black people talking about race rather than amazing black people.”
All of which is why, in 2019, when Badenoch found herself on stage at an ideas festival in Wales with Kimberlé Crenshaw, the American legal scholar who coined the term “intersectionality,” sparks flew—and not in a romantic way. Badenoch had never heard of her, wasn’t embarrassed about it (to Crenshaw’s surprise), and was unimpressed. “I was struck by how limited her worldview was on race. All she knew was American politics. When I told her that black kids do better than white working-class students in the UK, she didn’t believe it,” she recalled. For people like Crenshaw, Badenoch said, the oppression of black people is the norm. To defy that norm is to betray one’s blackness. “The success of people like me and other black conservatives is basically a denial of their own personal experience,” Badenoch told me. “They don’t want us to exist.”
There is a cost to such wrongthink. “I am very happy to debate with people who disagree with me. But people who disagree with me would rather I just didn’t have a voice,” she said. “There have been so many attempts to cancel me, attempts to portray me as a bigot.” Typical attacks run like this one, a recent tweet from the lawyer-activist Shola Mos-Shogbamimu: “Kemi Badenoch is a GIFT for racists & White supremacy—uses her Black identity to delegitimize the systemic oppression she claims UK is falsely accused of & now uses Black minority identity to run for Prime Minister. A Black Racial-Gatekeeping Executioner of Tory racist policies.”
“Being a conservative politician is actually one of the easiest jobs if you don’t want to get canceled, because you’ve been elected by a constituency of people who want you to use your voice to speak,” Badenoch said.
She has little time for arguments about “structural” inequality on “an individual level,” though she is concerned by “geographical disparities”—the kind that confer regional advantages on people, such as those born in certain parts of the U.K., particularly the prosperous southeast, as compared to poorer swathes of the country farther north.
But at the heart of Badenoch’s political firepower is her grasp of the epistemological battles being fought for the soul of the West. Currently on her bedside table is an academic book called “Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief” by the University of Oklahoma philosopher Linda Zagzebski. Badenoch’s chief concern is “people not being able to understand what the truth is anymore.” Policymakers are “starting to make bad decisions because they don’t know how to reason anymore. People don't know what is true and what is false, so they go on how they feel,” she said. “‘I don't like the way this feels’ is not the right question. The question is: ‘Is this right or wrong? Will this work or will this not work?’”
What, in the end, does Badenoch want?
“I want us to go back to normal,” she told me. “I want to bring more rigor to the debate, more truth. I want to bring clarity and honesty about the difficulties we face, to be open and honest and free.”
Badenoch’s future is likely to involve a senior cabinet post in the next government, which will be assembled in early September, but her next chance to have another go at the top job could be at least seven to eight years if the Tories fail to win the next general election, which will fall, at the latest, in January 2025. But she’s young. There’s time. And she is speaking about the issues that voters really care about.
Zoe Strimpel’s last piece for us was called: How Feminism Got Hijacked. You can read it here.