Who is Kemi Badenoch — the surprise insurgent gunning to be PM

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·11-min read
Who is Kemi Badenoch — the surprise insurgent gunning to be PM
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Four candidates remain vying it out for the top job in the country. One of the lesser known names to throw their hat in the ring is former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch.

The 42-year-old is going head-to-head against former chancellor Rishi Sunak, International Trade minister Penny Mordaunt and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Confirming her candidacy in The Times, Ms Badenoch said she wanted a limited government and to “tell the truth”.

“I have the conviction, the courage, and the clarity of thought to deliver that change,” she wrote on Twitter, announcing her leadership bid.

While many have said that the “culture warrior” is unlikely to become the next Prime Minister, she has an endorsement from Michael Gove and won 58 votes in the most recent round of voting. Sunak leads with 115 votes, Mordaunt has 82 votes and Truss is third with 71.

Badenoch appears to have nudged her way into a position where, should she be voted out in the next round, her supporters would be in a powerful position to decide if Truss or Mordaunt makes it into the final two.

Who is Kemi Badenoch and how has she gone from flipping burgers to being in with a chance of being the next PM?

Humble beginnings

Kemi Badenoch was born Olukemi Olufunto Adegoke on 2 January 1980 in Wimbledon, London, to Femi and Deyi Adegoke. Her father was a GP and her mother a professor of physiology. She has two siblings; a brother named Fola and a sister called Lola. Badenoch’s childhood included time living in Lagos, Nigeria and in the United States, where her mother lectured. A twist of fate meant Badenoch was born in the UK – her mother flew to the country for medical reasons – and it was only later in life realised it meant she was entitled to a British passport.

While she says her family wasn’t poor, Badenoch’s life is a far cry from the Etonian roots of her peers. She returned to the UK at the age of 16 to live with a family friend because of the deteriorating political and economical situation in Nigeria that affected her family.

Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)
Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)

While studying for her A Levels from Phoenix College, a former further education college in Morden, London, she supported herself by working at a branch of McDonald’s. “You would have people from college who would turn up and laugh at me because I was there with my hat and my badge and I didn’t have any stars,” she told The Times of her time at McDonald’s. “But it was what I had to do. I didn’t have any money. My parents weren’t here and I was living with family friends. So I had a roof over my head, but I needed to earn to live. There’s dignity that you just get from working and earning your own money.”

Badenoch then studied engineering at the University of Sussex in 2003 before securing a role as a software engineer at Logica, claiming she was “once the only woman on a building site with 300 men!” She then pivoted to law, studying a part-time degree at Birkbeck, University of London, completing her LLB in 2009 while she worked as an associate director of Coutts (the Queen’s bank) from 2006 and 2013, and was later digital director at The Spectator from 2015 to 2016.

Home life

Badenoch is married to Hamish Badenoch, and they have two daughters and a son. Hamish works for Deutsche Bank and was a Conservative councillor from 2014 to 2018 on Merton London Borough Council, representing Wimbledon Village. At the 2015 general election, he also unsuccessfully contested Foyle for the Northern Ireland Conservatives.

Until 2016, Badenoch was a board member of the Charlton Triangle Home housing association and was also a school governor at St Thomas the Apostle College in Southwark, and the Jubilee Primary School. In early 2022, her father, Femi, passed away from a brain tumour. In an interview with the Telegraph, Kemi said her father “taught me about responsibility”.

Badenoch is also a patron of several charities in her constituency, including Support 4 Sight, The Stroke Club and CVSU, and is a member of the British Computer Society and the Women’s Engineering Society. She is a keen chess player and poker player, as well as a big fan of Terry Pratchett novels and sci-fi.

Her rapid ascension to power

At 25, Badenoch joined the Conservative Party in 2005 and contested the Dulwich and North Norwood constituency against Tessa Jowell and came third. Two years later, she stood for the Conservatives in the London Assembly election where she placed fifth on the London-wide list, and she wasn’t elected.

Three years later, in the 2015 general election, Victoria Borwick was elected to the House of Commons and subsequently resigned her seat on the London Assembly. Suella Fernandes had been elected to the House of Commons and declined to fill the London Assembly seat. This meant that Badenoch, who had placed third, was declared the new Assembly Member. She went on to retain her seat in the Assembly in the 2016 election.

Badenoch was shortlisted to be the Conservative Party candidate for the marginal Hampstead and Kilburn consistency in the 2017 general election but was unsuccessful. She was ultimately selected as the Conservative candidate for Saffron Waldon, a safe seat for the Tories, which she held with 37,629 votes and a majority of 24,966. In her maiden speech as an MP on 19 July, she described the vote for Brexit as “the greatest vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom” and cited her personal heroes as Conservative politicians Winston Churchill, Airey Neave, and Margaret Thatcher.

“When I was growing up in the Eighties in sub-Saharan Africa, everybody knew who she was,” she said in an interview with The Times. “It was a very patriarchal society and boys in class would say, ‘Well, girls shouldn’t have jobs, they should stay home and look after children’. And you would just say ‘Margaret Thatcher’, and it would shut everybody up. I mean, whatever issues people in this country have with her, she’s an icon.”

Badenoch has held several roles since. In July 2018, she was appointed as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. She supported Brexit in the 2016 UK EU membership referendum, and she voted for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement in early 2019. And in February 2020, she was appointed In February 2020, Badenoch was appointed Exchequer Secretary to the Treasure and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Equalities) in the Department for International Trade.

 (Sky News)
(Sky News)

From one controversy to the next

Many of Badenoch’s critics have compared her to American Conservative Candace Owens for her controversial opinions on race and equality. During a debate in the House of Commons in April 2021, Badenoch criticised the Labour Party’s response to a report compiled by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which declared Britain was not institutionally racist.  Labour had described the report as “cherry-picking of data”, while the party’s former frontbench MP Dawn Butler claimed the report was “gaslighting on a national scale”, describing those who put it together as “racial gatekeepers”.

Badenoch accused Labour of “wilful misrepresentations” over the report and responded to Butler’s comments by stating “It is wrong to accuse those who argue for a different approach as being racism deniers or race traitors.”

In a government reshuffle in 2021, Badenoch was promoted to Minister of State for Equalities and appointed Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Shortly afterwards, Vice News said they had received leaked audio from 2018 in which Badenoch mocked gay marriage, referring to trans women as “men” and using the term transsexual which is considered an outdated term by the LGBT community. During the comments reportedly made in her Commons office in 2018, Ms Badenoch is alleged to have said: “Now it’s not just about being free to marry who you want, you now want to have men using women’s bathrooms.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner labelled the remarks “disgusting” and LGBT charity Stonewall said the comments were “hurtful and harmful”. In response, a government spokesperson said: “The 2018 comment has been taken out of context, with the Minister making a clear point about striking the balance for equality and fairness when there are multiple and often competing demands between different groups. It should not be used to misrepresent her views.”

In January 2021, Badenoch was criticised for branding a journalist “creepy and bizarre” for asking why she had not appeared in a video promoting a Covid vaccination despite a slower uptake among ethnic minorities. Sharing screenshots of the request for comment, the then-exchequer secretary and equalities minister went on Twitter to complain that the HuffPost news website had sought to “sow distrust by making up claims I refused to take part in a video campaign.”

Following the posts, then HuffPost editor-in-chief Jess Brammar said journalist Nadine White – who has since gone on to become the UK’s first race correspondence at The Independent – had been forced to make her profile private due to Ms Badenoch “accusing her of spreading disinformation.”

Ms Brammar defended the reporter saying that “Nadine was doing her job” by asking questions and approaching people in public office for comment.

Badenoch’s views

Badenoch has made a point of ensuring her anti-woke, right-wing views were heard. In an interview with The Independent, the MP said: “The left and liberal elite think they have a monopoly on the caring issues, whether it’s diversity or refugees.

“Of course we have a moral obligation to help refugees but what is important – and more difficult to do – is to look at what works when they come; can they find work? Do they integrate? Do they take on British values?”

During the 2016 referendum, Badenoch strongly supported leaving the EU. She also voted in favour of the withdrawal agreement drawn up by Theresa May’s government.

Badenoch has also criticised the Online Harms Bill, claiming that it risks criminal statements about biology and sex, and described herself as an “aid sceptic”.

“We had an Online Harms Bill, which was supposed to look at very serious crime, online terrorism, child porn and deal with that, and it has now grown. It is trying to fix loads of other problems that were not originally intended to solve. Legislation is not always the answer. We’ve now got to the point where we’re legislating for hurt feelings. I think it’s going to have significant freedom of speech issues.”

She’s also been criticised by pro-trans campaigners for her opposition to gender-neutral toilets. “One of the things that I see is people saying that women are adult biological females is harmful speech. We can’t legislate for something that will create a crime out of such a simple, factual statement… If I was prime minister, I would really cut that Bill down to focus on what it was meant to do. And that’s what I mean by lean government. Fix the problem.”

Badenoch has also consistently voted for raising the threshold at which people start to pay income tax, new high-speed rail infrastructure, and a more proportional system for electing MPs. She has also criticised the current government, saying that MPs need to be “honest” with voters about the tough choices that would need to be made to tackle inflation and the cost of living.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Gunning for the top spot

On July 9, Badenoch entered the race to become the Conservative party leader and PM. She confirmed her candidacy in The Times, and promised to deliver a “limited government” and to “focus on the essentials”. She supports lower taxes “to boost growth and productivity, and accompanied by tight spending discipline.”

She also hit out at “identity politics” and said Boris Johnson was “a symptom of the problem we face, not the cause of them”. On July 12, just days after declaring her intention to run for Tory leader, Badenoch claimed Brits shouldn’t receive any more cost of living payments and that rich pensioners should lose their winter fuel allowance. “For too long politicians have been saying… you can have your cake and eat it. I’m here to tell you that’s not the case,” she said. “I will not enter into a tax bidding war and say my tax cuts are bigger than yours. The dividing line in this race is not tax cuts, it’s judgment.”

She’s also received backing from Michael Gove who said he is “delighted to be supporting Kemi. I think she’s absolutely fantastic.

“I’ve worked with Kemi, and I’ve seen her take really complex policy issues, get to the heart of them, use systems, thinking, logic and conservative principles to drive change, to make an argument for change. And then to deliver it. I worked alongside her in Whitehall. And to my mind, she has all the policy, intellect and the administrative grip to hit the ground running from day one.”

MP for North East Derbyshire, Lee Rowley, is also backing Ms Badenoch. “Kemi’s clarity of analysis about the problems our country faces and her willingness to take tough decisions are exactly why colleagues should back her.”

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