Kemi Badenoch: “Lots of people felt bruised after the election. A fresh approach at CCHQ was really critical”
Just seven months after entering parliament, Kemi Badenoch has been handed a key role inside CCHQ overseeing her party’s candidate selection process. But the Saffron Walden MP, considered a rising star of the 2017 intake, is determined to stay grounded. She talks to Sebastian Whale
Kemi Badenoch wasn’t sure if she was in line for a job offer or a “bollocking” when she was summoned to Number 10 on the first Monday after the Christmas recess. While this may appear at first as faux-modesty, it rings true for a person who cites Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ as a personal mantra.
“I tend not to expect anything. One of my favourite sayings is, ‘if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’. That is my outlook on life, nothing is ever as good or as bad as what it seems. It just is what it is,” she says, sitting in her pokey office in the Palace of Westminster.
Rather than the ticking off the Saffron Walden MP reconciled herself to, she was offered the role of vice chair of the Conservative party with responsibility for candidates. The “briefing” from Chief Whip Julian Smith saw the appointed vice-chairs given the chance to opt in or out of their chosen mandates, before a group photo with the PM was taken on Downing Street. The slightly haphazard appearance of those in the picture is of no surprise; not one of them knew in advance of what was in store. Badenoch says she received messages from friends urging her to buy a new handbag when the image circulated.
It takes little time in her company to work out Badenoch is very laid back. In fact she’s so horizontal it’s a surprise she retains any semblance of balance. There is also a refreshing matter-of-factness to her approach. I stifle back a laugh as she explains that her first act in her new post was to remove her husband, Hamish Badenoch, a Conservative councillor, from the party’s list of candidates for the next election. There are clearly no hard feelings; she just spotted a conflict of interest and dealt with it accordingly. Always preparing for the worst, she’s expecting allegations of removing her husband because he (unlike her) backed Remain in the referendum and is a “white public schoolboy”.
“Actually, it’s just because there’s a conflict of interest if you’re on the candidates list and your wife’s head of candidates. I didn’t think that it would be appropriate. As long as I’m doing this role, I asked him if he minded just stepping off because I don’t want that to be part of the argument,” she says.
Badenoch was born in Wimbledon in 1980 but grew up in Nigeria and briefly in the United States before moving to the UK at 16, a point she noted in her award winning maiden speech. “There are few countries in the world where you can go, in one generation, from immigrant to parliamentarian. Michael Howard spoke of the ‘British dream’: people choosing this country because of its tolerance and opportunity. It is a land where Nigerian girl can move here, aged 16, be accepted as British and have the great honour of representing Saffron Walden,” she said.
The Tory MP attended five primary schools and three secondary schools as a result of regular relocations and says she was always a “curious” student and academic “sometimes”. She holds degrees in engineering and law, was a director at the Spectator magazine and an associate director at Coutts & Co, before joining the Greater London Authority in 2015.
Badenoch has been cited in the press as one of the stars of the 2017 brood – a label she is “flattered” by but takes with a healthy dose of salt. She modestly says that she’s received a lot of attention among her contemporaries “partly because I just look so different from everybody else, I know many people just remember me before others”. But her first speech in the Commons and address introducing Theresa May at the Conservative party conference (which went somewhat more smoothly than the PM’s efforts) garnered attention from a watching establishment always keen to anoint the next big thing.
It is not just hacks paying Badenoch such attention however. Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs committee, himself branded with the dreaded Westminster tag of ‘one to watch’, cites Badenoch (along with fellow 2017 Tory MPs Bim Afolami and Ben Bradley – more on him later) as “seriously impressive, capable and [colleagues] who have got some very radical Conservative ideas.”
Badenoch grew up wanting to be a doctor like her parents, but is relieved this never came to be, claiming she wouldn’t have been much cop. She lists Game of Thrones as her favourite TV series. As the mother of two young kids, any opportunity to “binge” on a boxset she regards as a guilty pleasure. And it’s handy for her new role as Tory vice chair for candidates that Badenoch considers her judge of character and ability to spot a “wrong-un” her greatest talent.
Reflecting on her first seven months in parliament, she says the ability to “fix things” and help people is the best aspect of life in Westminster. As for the worst, Badenoch takes aim at some on the opposition benches (though she admits this is not unique to the Labour party) who stand up in the Commons Chamber and “attribute to themselves the best motives and the very worst to the people who are there opponents”.
Whereas at one time she might have called herself socially liberal, recent developments mean it is not that “clear cut” on which side of the dividing line you fall. “I remember having a discussion with someone and even what we thought was quite liberal is now seen as quite conservative and vice versa,” she says.
“When I look at a lot of the stuff that you see on social media about how – I think it’s a generational thing as well – younger people look at appropriate behaviour and what is a sexual advance, what is sexual harassment and so on, to me, it’s actually becoming a lot more puritanical than anything I ever saw in my 20s or in my teens.
“In the papers, they were talking about how [TV show] Friends is now sort of really homophobic, transphobic and so on. That, for me, is a very, very – it’s actually a puritanical position that I think of as conservative. So, you can’t really put your finger on what is what these days.
“Friends was the biggest television series of all time. Everybody loved it, it was syndicated all around the world. The idea that in a few years people are talking about it as if it’s this horrific series, for me that just doesn’t compute, something has gone wrong somewhere.
“I don’t know whether it’s a fad, where people are saying these things and then they’ll move on to something else or whether this is now a permanent thing. I’ve seen these fits and seizures where everybody is interested in something and then they move on.”
The appointment of Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly as chair and deputy chair of the Tory party was seen as an attempt to inject some much needed fresh blood into CCHQ. Former chairman Patrick McLoughlin took much of the heat for the disastrous general election campaign and reportedly wanted to stand down last year, before being persuaded to go out in the January reshuffle.
Badenoch agrees that the time was right for a new impetus. “It’s something that definitely had to happen. After the last election, lots of people were feeling quite bruised. Just having a new broom and just a fresh approach was really critical. It’s nice to be a part of that.”
Badenoch, who joined the Conservative party after the 2005 general election, first stood for parliament in 2010. Now with responsibility for candidates, are there frailties in the party process she has seen that she would like to address?
“I think bringing a lot more faith into the system is something that I would do,” she says. “Something I would say about every candidate is that everyone feels that the system is against them and there are a chosen few who will be selected to go on to do great things and everybody else is being lied to and so on.
“I genuinely felt this, in 2015 I didn’t do that well in parliamentary selections, I felt that someone had marked my card or something like that. I want people to know that it’s not like that, it’s just that not everyone can become an MP and also making sure that we have as broad a spectrum of people as possible.
“People complain that there are too many lawyers, too many posh people, too many men or too many of the women are privately educated. Everybody has a complaint and it’s about making sure that the system is transparent and robust enough so that when people do come through they can say, ‘yes, this has been done on merit.’”
One tool Badenoch will not be considering is implementing all-women shortlists or quotas to improve representation in the Conservative party.
She believes such quotas can have “unintended consequences”. “You get a different type of person if you use a quota than if you didn’t,” she explains. “You might think it’s a quick fix, but there’s a reason why we want more women. Saying that we want more women so we can say we’ve got more women, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about what type of women we want, what it is that we want the women to do. I’m also a bit suspicious about ‘only women can talk to other women in a population’, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case... there are loads of men who also would make really good MPs and letting them know that they’ve also got a fair crack at doing this is important.”
Nor will she factor in candidates’ views on Brexit in selections, and insists deselections are a matter for local constituency parties.
So given that, how will Badenoch attract the diverse talent she seeks to stand for the Conservative party? “I’m an engineer, so I don’t rush to do a strategy without finding out what the problem I’m trying to solve is. At the moment, I’m in the gathering information stage,” she says, with a meeting with party chairman Lewis lined up for the day after we meet.
But time might not be on the Conservative MP’s side. A review by Sir Eric Pickles into last year’s general election called for parliamentary candidates to be in place in “battleground seats” by June 2018 “to ensure they are well-established within the seat before the next scheduled General Election on 5th May 2022”. The Labour party has already selected candidates in dozens of target seats in preparation for a possible early election. And in an interview with The House in September, the Prime Minister herself said the Conservative party was caught off guard by the election she called last April.
Badenoch however is in no rush, referencing her experience of being selected two years before standing in Dulwich and West Norwood in 2010 (where she finished third). “You’re basically asked to do a part time job for free and spend your own money, go round, do all sorts of stuff and you don’t know if you’re even going to win the seat. I’m very interested in people’s welfare, and there’s nothing more frustrating than that. If you want to look at people who are bitter about the experience they have of being candidates, I bet you will find a large proportion of people who were selected so early, they ended up giving years of their lives and for whatever reason they didn’t get in.”
Not long after our interview comes to an end, Ben Bradley, the 28-year-old Tory MP appointed vice chair for youth, comes under fire for a 2012 blog post in which he suggested benefit claimants should have vasectomies. I think back on Badenoch’s response to my final question, about all the hype of her potential, and her “nothing is ever as good or as bad as what it seems” outlook on life.
“Remember what I said about being a bit circumspect about the things that people say. Triumph and disaster. There are many people who are rising stars and then they become falling stars. I am at the moment in that category of most likely to be a falling star pretty soon. So, you’ve got to bare that in mind.”