Badenoch rows highlight combative style of Tory leadership prospect

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday refused to repeat the litany of accusations levelled by Kemi Badenoch, his business secretary, against the man she fired as chair of the Post Office.

Then again, few British politicians would have used the eviscerating words aimed by Badenoch at Henry Staunton, whom she accused of spreading “a series of falsehoods” about the Horizon IT scandal as part of “a blatant attempt to seek revenge following dismissal”.

Sunak resisted the invitation from Sir Keir Starmer to repeat those accusations — rejected by Staunton — but the episode provided a revealing glimpse of what British politics might sound like if Badenoch ends up leading her party after the next election.

“It would be full of rows, disagreements, spectacular sackings, noise,” said Paul Goodman, the veteran Conservative commentator. “The risks of this approach are immense. It’s a high-wire act, but they sometimes work.”

The idea of Badenoch succeeding Sunak after a possible Tory election defeat later this year is common currency among Conservative MPs and bookmakers make her 2-1 favourite, ahead of Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman.

Conservative activists love her, as the “league table” of cabinet ministers on the ConservativeHome blog shows. Badenoch tops the rankings this month with a plus-58 approval rating, compared with Sunak’s minus-18.

Kemi Badenoch, left, as a candidate for leadership of the Conservative party at hustings with Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak in July 2022 © Tom Nicholson/Shutterstock

Badenoch, aged 44, spent her youth between Britain and Nigeria, where her middle-class family life was shattered by political upheaval. Sent to live with a family friend in south London, she enrolled at a local college for A-levels and worked at McDonald’s to support herself.

“She was poorer in the UK than she was in Nigeria,” said one former cabinet minister. “People in the party admire the fact that she worked hard and pulled herself up through discipline and resilience.”

Goodman said Badenoch’s position as an “anti-woke, black woman” has made her popular with a predominantly white and older party membership. Badenoch, he added, says things they fear they “might get into trouble if they expressed themselves”.

Badenoch, who pursued a career in financial services and consultancy before entering parliament as MP for Saffron Walden in 2017, has never had any reservations about expressing herself. Tory MPs believe it is both her strength and her Achilles heel.

Her attacks on Staunton this week confirmed a highly confident and assertive style that sometimes crashes directly into what her opponents would call “facts”.

For example, Badenoch last month claimed trade talks with Canada were “ongoing” even after she had unilaterally paused them, a version of events flatly contradicted by Ralph Goodale, Canada’s high commissioner to the UK.

Badenoch’s team later said she was “having multiple discussions, these are different to negotiations” with Canada. Goodale said there had been “neither negotiations nor technical discussions”.

Kemi Badenoch campaigning as MP for Saffron Walden in May 2019 © Brian Harris/Alamy

On Wednesday Badenoch, who is also equalities minister, was challenged over whether she had been entirely frank when she claimed in December to have “engaged extensively with LGBT groups”.

Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP, obtained data from Badenoch’s department through a Freedom of Information Act request that showed just two meetings with two gender-sceptic groups.

An ally of Badenoch said the minister had “exchanged multiple emails and letters” with various LGBT groups. “This is all engagement. The truth is that Ben Bradshaw really just wants her to meet the likes of Stonewall and Mermaids, who support self-ID, something that Kemi does not support.”

Badenoch, a Brexiter, infuriated fellow Eurosceptics last year when she scaled back plans for a “bonfire” of EU laws that remain on the British statute book after Brexit, telling MPs bluntly: “I’m certainly not an arsonist. I’m a Conservative.”

Some Eurosceptics have not forgiven her. “She’s just a proxy for Michael Gove,” said one leading Tory Brexiter, referring to the levelling-up secretary’s backing for Badenoch’s tilt at the party leadership in the summer of 2022 after Boris Johnson was ousted.

But her decision to abandon a flagship Brexiter policy won her admirers among MPs belonging to the Tory centre, who saw it as evidence of a pragmatic, thoughtful minister.

Andrew Lewer, a Tory MP and ally of Badenoch, said the political attacks on the business secretary this week, whether over the Post Office, Canadian trade talks or LGBT issues, were politically motivated.

“Her abilities and Labour’s fear of them is clearly what’s behind the latest ‘Get Kemi’ frenzy,” he said.

One Labour shadow cabinet minister said Badenoch’s willingness to shoot from the hip would backfire eventually with the voters. “When Rishi goes, we want it to be Kemi.”

Badenoch insists she wants no part of leadership “tittle tattle” and says she fully backs Sunak in spite of her party’s dire polling numbers. She supported Sunak for the Tory leadership when Liz Truss’s premiership imploded in October 2022.

But Tory MPs see evidence of her team being on manoeuvres, pointing for example to a briefing to The Times that Badenoch had urged Sunak to toughen up action against illegal migration.

Her allies share a WhatsApp group jokingly called “Evil Plotters”. Most Tory MPs expect Badenoch to be a pivotal figure if the Conservatives find themselves in need of a new leader after a general election defeat.

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