Zoe Strimpel writes:
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.
She has become a real star and I predict she will become a full Cabinet Secretary once there is a new Prime Minister.
This speech has been much viewed and complimented.
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.”
Free markets have pulled hundreds of mullions out of poverty in India and China – hardly Western countries.