Kemi Badenoch shows why she is the obvious choice for next Tory leader

Kemi Badenoch, Business and Trade Secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester
Kemi Badenoch, Business and Trade Secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester - Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

The word that comes up most often when people discuss this year’s Conservative Party conference is “flat”.

But among the policy-light speeches to half-empty rooms, there has been the odd flash of electricity.

Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman have received the sort of rock star welcome not seen since Boris Johnson was in his pomp.

Frank Luntz, the American pollster who predicted Liz Truss would be Boris Johnson’s successor two years before it happened, has now predicted that Mrs Badenoch will be the next Tory leader.

The bookies have made her the new favourite for the job.

At a fringe event held by The Spectator magazine on Tuesday night, there were hundreds of Badenoch fans who agreed.

Some could not restrain themselves at the sight of the Business and Trade Secretary, shouting: “We love you Kemi!” and “Kemi for PM!”

No doubt her most ardent supporters would like to see her become Tory leader before the next election. Yet the bulk of them see her as the obvious choice to reinvigorate the party if, as currently seems likely, Labour wins the next election.

On a superficial level, a young, black woman leading the Conservatives would represent the most striking possible reboot for a defeated party that its opponents argue has run out of energy and ideas after 13 years in power.

More importantly, as far as the members are concerned – and it is they who have the final say over leadership choices – is the fact that she is unashamedly Right-wing, a flag-waving patriot, and a true believer in Brexit.

The Tories will not be able to win the next election, or any other, if their base deserts them. Leadership contenders only need to win over the parliamentary party and the membership, rather than the country as a whole, to land the leadership. Just ask Ms Truss.

And at The Spectator event, where Mrs Badenoch spent 50 minutes in conversation with Fraser Nelson, the magazine’s editor, she showed just why the membership is shouting her name.

Like Mrs Braverman, she is tough on migration – the number one concern for Tory voters – and can speak about it with the freedom of someone who is herself a migrant.

Mrs Badenoch, who was born in London but raised in Nigeria, came to the UK on her own so she could get a British education, staying with a family friend and getting weekend jobs so she could support herself.

“Nigeria did not look after me,” she told the audience. “The country that loved me and looked after me was the UK.”

With such emotive phrases, Mrs Badenoch, 43, combines unashamed patriotism with a clear message on migration – that Britain looks after those who come here legally.

She is a plain speaker who is not afraid to use words like “Lefties” as she rails against the North London types who patronised her when she was at university.

On Brexit, she declares herself “militant” on the subject, saying that her role as Trade Secretary has shown her that the European Commission “doesn’t care about business, they only care about the European project”.

‘Best place in the world to be black’

Nor is she afraid to get stuck into the culture wars, earning herself front page praise this week for her conference speech in which, in her other role as equalities minister, she declared that Britain is the best place in the world to be black.

Mrs Badenoch’s critics argue that she is either a puppet of Michael Gove, her biggest supporter, or that there is little depth to her politics.

“Can you name me one thing she stands for apart from taking on the woke mob?” one Tory MP said when asked whether they were convinced by her.

But as Business and Trade Secretary, her primary job is to nail down those free trade agreements that were promised as one of the Brexit dividends – meaning she does not need to be coming up with radical policies right now.

Like Boris Johnson before her, she is able to use rhetoric to devastating effect. In opposition, that is much of the job.

Her supporters recognise that she has more in common with David Cameron than Boris Johnson, as a relatively untested MP who can provide a fresh new face and learn the ropes in five years of opposition.

Mrs Badenoch came a highly creditable fourth in last year’s leadership contest, while her direct rival Mrs Braverman came a distant sixth.

If the Tory base crumbles at the next election, the party will surely pivot to the Right, and Mrs Badenoch may well be the obvious choice to take it there.

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