Kemi Badenoch is full of wonderfully unexpected remarks. Her hero, murdered outside the Commons the year before she was born, is Airey Neave: “The escape from Colditz is I think probably the coolest thing any British politician has ever done.”
On being asked to define her political position, she without hesitation responds: “I’m not really left-leaning on anything.”
And in her ten-minute speech (viewable here on YouTube) before Theresa May spoke at this year’s party conference, instead of complaining that the world is run by white middle-aged men, Badenoch went out of her way to thank the men who helped her – a black woman born in London and brought up in Nigeria, who returned to London in 1996 at the age of 16 with £100 in her pocket – to become, 21 years later, Conservative MP for the safe seat of Saffron Waldon: “Graham Brady, Francis Maude, Guy Opperman, thank you.”
She sees this refusal to be prejudiced against particular groups as a key difference between the Conservatives and the Corbyn-led Labour Party:
“They’ve created groups that have ticks, and groups with crosses… they’ve picked the religion they support. It’s not everybody. It’s certainly very anti-Judaism. Probably neutral on Christianity, neutral to negative. And then they have chosen to be pro the Muslim community in a way they have not been in the past.”
Badenoch describes why in 2005 she decided to join the Conservative Party and “couldn’t stop reading ConHome”. She is anxious to downplay talk of her as a future leader, for she knows that having only just entered the House of Commons, she has a vast amount to learn. And she is convinced that politics is a team game.
The interview was punctuated by frequent laughter, but also by serious points which few MPs would venture to make, perhaps for fear of being thought old-fashioned:
“I feel we are much softer as a generation… I think that we have gone a bit soft in terms of how resilient we are in dealing with adversity. And that’s not as politicians, but just the country as a whole. I don’t feel that we’re as tough as we used to be.”
Badenoch [at the start of the conversation]: “I’ve been reading ConservativeHome since 2005.”
ConHome: “Oh golly. You’re a Montgomerie Conservative.”
Badenoch: “Yes I was. When he did the summary of the leadership election in 2005, I’d just joined the party, and it was the place to go if you wanted to know what was going on. It was very comprehensive and I sort of learned what it was all about from ConHome. I just couldn’t stop reading it.
“If you picked up a newspaper you might get one snippet but ConHome was the repository of every single thing that was going on. So that was my lunch break read.”
ConHome: “What actually prompted you to join the Conservative Party at that point?”
Badenoch: “To be honest, it wasn’t any one thing. It was always something that I’d had at the back of my mind, even at university, but I just never got round to it, there was always something more important to do.
“And then when I was 25 I think I was sort of in a quarter-life crisis phase. A lot of my friends were not where I was, you know, you disperse after university, and I wasn’t sure I was in the right job, I’d just finished my engineering degree.
“And then the Blair-era 2005 election happened, and I just thought ‘Well, why’s he still winning? Surely people have sussed out what he’s about?’
“And I thought it would be a fun thing to do. I thought it would be a really social, bubbly organisation. And so I joined, and the first thing I did – and this is why I think the party has to be really careful about the first experience new members have – was a Conservative Future Christmas party…”
ConHome: “Oh gosh.”
Badenoch: “…somewhere in central London, in the City, and Francis Maude was speaking, and it just had lots of City workers, barristers, those sorts of people, it wasn’t the 18 to 22 student body.
“And I had a really great time, and it just made it seem this was a normal thing to do, and so that kept me going, where probably I might just have thought ‘Urgh, actually it’s not that much fun’, which is what’s happened to a few friends of mine.
“So I joined because I wanted to do something social and meet new people, and I wasn’t happy with the way the country was going post the Blair election.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do career-wise. So the other thing I did in 2005 was I started another degree, and I went back to university, I went to Birkbeck to study law part-time while I was working in softwear engineering.
“So that’s why I joined the party.”
ConHome: “So who did you support in the 2005 leadership election?”
Badenoch: “David Davis.”
ConHome [laughter]: “Very good. Well done.”
Badenoch: “Why did I support David Davis? It’s because I didn’t know who David Cameron was. I think it’s good that he won. I was probably too new to it all. It was just well who on paper looked right. And David Cameron at that stage, he’d only been there four years, and I thought ‘surely he can’t be ready’.”
ConHome: “And for a long time he was very much the outsider.”
Badenoch: “But I was in the minority, very much so. He beat Davis two to one. In my first few months as a party member, I wasn’t that active. I think there were some local elections in London and I delivered some leaflets and stuff like that.
“But the philosophy was growing. For someone who didn’t grow up here, doing a law degree is almost like doing a crash course in British history, which I didn’t really have more than the most superficial memory of.
“So the bit of me, the amateur economist who was just getting going, reading Road to Serfdom and stuff, that’s what I was doing when I was 25, 26, 27. And that was what was laying the foundation in its own way.
“So I’m very much probably an Austrian school supply-sider, free-marketeer, more than anything.
“But as I get older I’m finding that I am becoming less socially liberal than I was, which is really interesting. I was having a conversation with someone and I almost couldn’t define what social liberalism meant any more.
“Because it feels like all the big battles have been won, and I don’t know what it means now, given that this is the status quo.
ConHome: “Can you explain what you mean by becoming ‘less socially liberal’?”
“So I think a good example would be on drugs policy. In theory I think that taking the crime out of drugs by liberalising it and so on would work, but I wouldn’t want to be the person to push it, because I think it’s just a theory.
“It could go horribly wrong and I wouldn’t want to be the person pushing for it. I think it’s something that the country has to come together, almost like Brexit, and we see there’s a clear majority for it. I don’t think it’s something politicians should lead on.
ConHome: “I saw that Sebastian Payne described you as one of the New Modernisers the other day.”
Badenoch: “I don’t know where he got that from.”
ConHome: “It just means you’re one of the interesting new MPs. At the party conference you did give that speech before Theresa May, which was very enjoyable, it cheered people up.
“But anyhow, as you become better known people are going to attach tiresome labels to you. So Tom Tugendhat is probably called ‘left-leaning’ or something. So what would be the journalistic shorthand for you? Centre-right?”
ConHome: “You’d be happy with centre-right, would you?”
Badenoch: “Yes. I’m not really left-leaning on anything.”
ConHome: “Oh that’s a nice straight answer.”
Badenoch: “I always lean right instinctively.
“What’s interesting is that I actually find it very hard to dislike Conservatives. It’s something that I said in my conference speech, that it has become very much a family, and even when you have these really aggravating, annoying family members, you still love them, maybe buried very deep under lots of irritation. But they’re still my people.”
ConHome: “It was tremendously refreshing to hear you thanking white middle-aged men. Thank you. You didn’t actually say old, tired, over-weight, over-represented…”
Badenoch [laughing]: “I know. I think you had a bad press lately. I was just telling the truth. Lots of people helped me, but if I was dividing them demographically, the bulk of the people who did help me would fall into that category.
“And again, I don’t treat people differently because they’re a different gender or a different race. I don’t want to be treated like that.
“But it seems as if the argument has moved away from ‘it’s bad to treat people in a certain way because of their skin or race’, to ‘unless they fall into these categories’.
“Then it’s OK. That seems to be what people say now. Previously racism was wrong. Now it’s OK to be prejudiced provided it’s against the patriarchy, or it’s OK to be sexist if it’s a middle-aged man.
“And that just doesn’t make any sense to me. The rules should apply to whoever you are or wherever you come from or however lucky you’ve been, and that’s how I look at things.
“That’s the difference between us and Labour at the moment. They’ve created groups that have ticks, and groups with crosses. And that’s how they’re approaching politics.
“So everything now is about ‘what’s this done for equality and diversity’. Basically their political strategy seems just to be counting how many women are there, how many ethnic minorities are there.
“Certainly up to the 2017 election. And they do it in a different way now with things like Universal Credit, where they’re not necessarily looking at the average taxpayer, who doesn’t earn that much money, but people who are in a small category of benefit claimants, to be frank, it’s not everybody, it’s a small category of benefit claimants.
“So they’ve picked the religion they support. It’s not everybody. It’s certainly very anti-Judaism. Probably neutral on Christianity, neutral to negative. And then they have chosen to be pro the Muslim community in a way they have not been in the past.”
ConHome: “Sorry, by ‘they’ who in particular are you talking about?”
Badenoch: “The Corbyn-led Labour. I think they have picked a religion that they favour above others, or certainly they’ve picked the one they don’t like, and they’re quite happy to be anti-Israel.”
ConHome: “A lot of Labour people are really distressed by the anti-semitic stuff.”
Badenoch: “Well what is a lot? The majority?”
ConHome: “I would say most decent Labour people.”
Badenoch: “It doesn’t come across. No, it doesn’t come across. And this is the other thing that I find with social media. That whatever it is you believe, you then get it re-echoed. So it might be that that’s what I see. Because someone who doesn’t feel that way doesn’t say anything about Israel. The people who are saying things are all negative, so it feels like Labour are wholly against them.”
ConHome: “Does religion play any part in your politics?”
Badenoch: “Not particularly, no. I define myself as a cultural Christian. My grandfather was a reverend.”
ConHome: “Gosh. On which side?”
Badenoch: “My mother’s father. My paternal grandmother was a Muslim, though to be fair she did convert in later life. My family’s sort of Anglican and Methodist. My maternal grandfather was a Methodist reverend.”
ConHome: “And where did he practice?”
Badenoch: “In Nigeria. I was born here [in Wimbledon], but I call myself first generation, because I grew up in Nigeria and I chose to come back here. So I’m agnostic really, but I was brought up with cultural Christian values.”
ConHome: “Have you had your children baptised?”
Badenoch: “Yes, because I’m married to a Catholic [she and Hamish Badenoch, whose mother emigrated from Ireland, have two children].”
ConHome: “They’re being brought up as Catholics, are they?”
Badenoch: “Yes. So I’m an honorary or associate member of the Catholic Church. That’s what I call it.”
ConHome: “You said in your maiden speech, ‘I’m often inexplicably confused with a member of the Labour Party.’”
Badenoch: “Yes I know. I thought that was funny. It didn’t get the laughs that I thought that it would do. The ‘inexplicably’ was in reference to race because they just assume [that she is a Labour MP], although I have to say, it was very funny, last week someone asked me if I was a member of the SNP.”
ConHome: “So what’s it like in fact being a black woman Tory? I get the impression – I don’t want to put words in your mouth – that you find it rather enjoyable.”
Badenoch: “I think there’s a novelty factor there, which means I get more attention from journalists.”
ConHome: “Because actually there are quite a few men, aren’t there.”
Badenoch: “Yes, Sam Gyimah, Kwasi Kwarteng, Bim Afolami, and also Adam Afriyie and James Cleverly, they’re mixed race but are to all intents and purposes treated the same as people who aren’t mixed race as well. And there’s Helen Grant as well.”
ConHome: “Anyhow, what’s it like?”
Badenoch: “There’s a novelty factor to it that’s interesting. You get attacked a lot, I don’t know if you saw the Emma Dent Coad stuff.”
ConHome: “I didn’t go deeply into it. I saw you struck back very hard.”
Badenoch: “Yes. It’s an attitude I had again and again. Less so now I’m an MP, because when you’re a Member of Parliament it’s very difficult to say, ‘Oh you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what these people are like.’ It’s then patronising to a ridiculous extent [to assume that a black person can only join Labour].
“I think it’s been very positive because of people who write and say ‘I’ve always felt Conservative, but not able to say so, and actually having you there means that I’m not a race traitor.’ So very encouraging, because it means other people are coming out of the closet so to speak.
“But other than that, people remember my name more, because I look different and it’s an unusual name. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s different for me and any other new MP. We have the same sort of work load, the same sort of correspondence that needs to go out, more or less voting the same way with the party on everything.
“But it has been a very positive experience. I thought I knew what it would be like to be an MP, but now that I’m doing it, it’s a bit different but also more intense than I thought. It’s a very intense experience. It takes over your whole life.
“You’re an MP even when you’re sleeping. I have dreams about voting in the lobbies. I had a dream that I was in the wrong lobby and I couldn’t get out, and I woke up in a cold sweat.”
ConHome: “But this hasn’t happened in real life?”
Badenoch: “No, no, no.”
ConHome: “And what do you say when people say you should be in the Cabinet, when you’ve only this moment arrived?”
Badenoch: “Honestly, I’ve worked in so many places, and it’s the only job where you can literally walk through the door and people ask, ‘Do you want to be CEO? Do you think you can run this place?’
“It is a ludicrous, a ludicrous suggestion. I’ve only just found a decent office, I’m still trying to navigate my way round the House of Commons without getting lost, and a lot of the time, for example on the Justice Select Committee, I’m learning.
“It’s a very steep learning curve. I’m still near the bottom of it as far as I’m concerned, in terms of how it all works. The idea that I should be preparing for leadership, I think it’s just journalists getting excited. And also I think it’s a bit cheeky to say ‘Yes I do’, when the people who are going to pick you are your colleagues. I’m flattered, but I’m quite happy doing what I’m doing now and learning.”
ConHome: “Your seat used to be held by Rab Butler.”
Badenoch: “I can’t believe I’m in his seat. I know what he did with the Education Act, and I think he was unlucky that he never reached the top, and he didn’t really get on with Churchill.
“I imagine if I was there I’d probably have been on the Churchillian side rather than on the Butler side. I think he’s very much what a lot of people who aim for high office want to be, pragmatic, really getting the detail, being able to make some things happen, the possible.”
ConHome: “And on the policy side, he got things sorted out after the war, when you had to adapt to what Labour were doing.”
Badenoch: “So he was an early moderniser.”
ConHome: “I think almost every politician is by definition a moderniser, if modernisation means intelligent adaptation to circumstance. So do you want to name some of your heroes?”
Badenoch: “I always name Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher.”
ConHome: “How did Airey Neave cross your radar? You’re quite young to think of Airey Neave, because he was blown up in 1979. You were hardly born.”
Badenoch: “No I wasn’t. He died a few months before I was born. He died before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, which was ’79.”
ConHome: “A very admirable figure, but how did he attract your attention?”
Badenoch: “I watched a documentary about 15 years ago, around the time I joined the party, I can’t say when. Margaret Thatcher was definitely a hero, and it was all about how she became Leader of the Opposition. And it then showed how he, he’d just been a backbencher, how he was one of the people who was instrumental in getting her there.
“So he’s my hero for three reasons. One for that reason, there are always stories about these great figures who do this, that and the other, but no one ever talks about the people who get them there, and it’s very much something I believe in. I believe in teams. Despite my not believing in collectivism and socialism, I’m very much a team player.
“People often ask me, because of my demographic and I used to be a London Assembly member, they ask me, ‘Would you consider being Mayor of London some day?’ And I tell them, ‘No, it’s not a team job. Team jobs are the ones that I enjoy.’ And looking at the team that got her there, I thought that was very admirable, because he must have been taking a huge risk. She was very much a wild card at the time.
“And then also how he died, because I thought it was so awful, and why he was picked because he was someone who was sticking to his guns. It’s one of the things people forget about being a politician. You get abuse for all sorts of things, but there are many decisions that we take that are life-threatening, and his stance was one of the reasons why he was picked as a target. Also, I did read up a little bit more, Cheryl’s actually given me a book on Airey Neave [Paul Routledge’s biography] which is my Christmas reading.”
Cheryl Bacon [who works in Badenoch’s office]: “Kemi and I have similar heroes.”
Badenoch: “The escape from Colditz is I think probably the coolest thing any British politician has ever done.”
Bacon: “One or two lords escaped as well.”
Badenoch: “They were made lords because of their war service. So that we do have a lot of war heroes. But when you think about MPs, when I listen to MPs, again, I must sound so tribal, but when I hear a lot of the whining from the Opposition benches, you think about people like Airey Neave, and what they got done, and I just imagine if the current Parliamentary Labour Party and probably a few others on our side were in prisoner of war camps, they’d probably just die.”
ConHome: “Well Dan Jarvis would be all right.”
Badenoch: “Maybe, maybe Dan Jarvis. But I feel we are much softer as a generation, and that’s probably a better point to make, it sounds less party political. I think that we have gone a bit soft in terms of how resilient we are in dealing with adversity.
“And that’s not as politicians, but just the country as a whole. I don’t feel that we’re as tough as we used to be, if we had to deal with rationing or not having everything 24/7 immediately available.
“And that makes me sound old, and less socially liberal, and I love consumer culture, I love being able to do my same-day Amazon, it is amazing. I love being able to hear a song – do you remember when you’d hear a tune and you couldn’t remember what it was? And now you’ve got Shazam and you can get the name, you can buy it, I love all of that.
“But I worry that it’s taken something away from us, which is our ability just to withstand the Black Swan events. And you never know what that’s going to be.”