Is the Tory party ready for Kemi Badenoch? If the present leader, Rishi Sunak, loses power next year, the Tories would be wise to pause. For all the hysteria of modern Westminster, Sunak has steered his ship from a tempest into calmer waters with some dignity. But politics rarely forgives defeat. He has been an energetic and intelligent prime minister, and should surely be allowed to recover his party from anything less than a humiliating defeat. But parties tend to reward a challenge from a more extreme wing. Badenoch may well step in.
Everything in her record suggests she is something of a rarity. Unlike her rivals Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, Badenoch appears a tactical rather than a strident rightwinger. While hailing from the Brexit heartlands of Essex, she has become practised at championing an argued rather than a doctrinal Conservatism.
When last week she appeared to back Braverman’s outright hostility to the European court of human rights over migration, she argued merely that “the convention needs updating”. Given the court increasingly strays into issues of national sovereignty, it was hardly radical to suggest that withdrawal “needs to be on the table”. Badenoch was clearly taking a lead from the veteran judge Lord Sumption, who argued last week for the UK to withdraw from this now outdated institution and adopt a human rights law of its own.
Badenoch has chosen her public causes with care. Not many in her party objected when as equalities minister she criticised the politicisation of LGBTQ+ charities. She has had to defend Sunak’s backsliding on the climate crisis – notably his lurch in favour of drivers – but did so with some deftness. She argues that bankrupting the British economy to reach net zero, which if achieved would only have a minuscule impact on global heating, would be an example of virtue signalling. The same goes, she says, for not mining British oil and gas, yet consuming other people’s. She must be right that the crippling cost of climate-change policies should be publicly argued if they are to be obeyed.
Badenoch opposes any further cuts in corporation tax and is a sceptic on HS2. Even her approach to Brexit has become more nuanced, given that as minister for trade she has been on the frontline. But having defined herself as a “pragmatic” Brexiter, she may yet have to decide whether she is also a “pragmatic returner”, at least to some aspects of the single market. Keir Starmer has already committed to renegotiating the EU agreement if Labour is in power.
Last year, the fanatics of the European Research Group were enraged at Badenoch’s amendments on the retained EU law bill. She held her ground saying it would be crazy just to abandon 4,000 EU regulations enshrined in British statutes. They should be repealed as and when ministers considered them appropriate. She stuck with revoking just 600.
As Badenoch reiterates, every country is now having trouble with inflation, growth and immigration. Countries must collaborate in solving them, not tear themselves apart in self harm. She has made optimism – or at least “not pessimism” – a leitmotif of her public statements and this is not unattractive. Her clear tendency is not to assert the rightwing position on every issue but to suggest it be debated. She is a trained engineer and a trained lawyer. One hopes she would at least recognise what works.