UK PM hopeful Kemi Badenoch calls for more ‘truth’ and less government

Lighter, nimbler government and 'anti-woke' platform on offer from ambitious politician

“We have been in the grips of a social, cultural, economic and intellectual malaise,” Ms Badenoch said. Photo: HM Treasury
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Lashing out at ice cream company Ben & Jerry's enthusiasm for social justice and railing against economic and cultural “malaise”, Kemi Badenoch made a unique pitch for Conservative backing on Tuesday, as the daughter of Nigerian doctors seeks an upset victory in the race for the leadership.

“We have been in the grips of a social, cultural, economic and intellectual malaise,” Ms Badenoch said as she identified a range of issues the government needs to confront.

She accused some businesses, for example, of undermining the free-market system by exhibiting a “Ben & Jerry’s tendency to prioritise social justice, not productivity and profits”.

Last year, Ben & Jerry's announced it would no longer sell its products in Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank.

“It’s time to tell the truth,” said Ms Badenoch as she launched her Conservative leadership campaign in a smart office bloc around the corner from where she normally works at the Houses of Parliament.

“For too long, politicians have been telling us that we can have it all, that you can have your cake and eat it, too, and I’m here to tell you that that isn’t true.

“There are always tough choices, in life as in politics.”

In the crowded battle to become the next British prime minister, the junior minister with no Cabinet experience — and therefore “no baggage”, she said — happily distinguished herself from Boris Johnson and his associates.

Straight-talking is something of a calling card for the MP for Saffron Walden and former minister at the Department for Levelling Up.

There will be plenty of difficult decisions facing whichever of the 10 candidates succeeds Mr Johnson: soaring inflation, a cost-of-living crisis and the continuing war in Ukraine are top of the list, but there will be many other problems the winner will have to contend with.

Wearing a sharp red suit, the former minister for equality spent 20 minutes at the podium giving a detailed breakdown of her political vision.

“No free lunches, no tax cuts without limits on government spending, no stronger defence without a slimmer state,” said the computer science engineering graduate.

Kemi Badenoch

Britain’s economic woes are “acute” and “inflation is a problem” but the problems go back “way further”, she said.

There was too much “unproductive public spending” and “well-meaning regulations” curtailing business growth, she said, in an apparent swipe at the government’s net-zero climate target.

In an alarming signal for environmentalists, including some within her own party, she vowed to do away with the policy of “unilateral economic disarmament”, if elected.

“Too many policies, like net-zero targets, are set up with no thought to the effects on industries in the poorer parts of this country,” Ms Badenoch said.

Kemi Badenoch. Photo: UK Parliament

Not unlike her Tory leadership rivals, she is committed to reducing corporate and personal taxes but will not enter into a “my tax cuts are bigger than yours” competition, focusing instead on “unravelling” the problems first.

The young politician, considered an outsider among the party’s traditional core, took aim at current Conservative policies, which she accused of being antiquated.

“It’s the scale and structure of government that’s the problem,” said Ms Badenoch, promising to discard the “priorities of Twitter to focus on the people’s priorities”.

A staunch proponent of free speech, she doubled down on her opposition to the Online Harms Bill, insisting the police should focus on neighbourhood crime and “not worrying about hurt feelings online”.

She was nevertheless critical of those whose voices were allowed to “delegitimise, decolonise and denigrate” the UK.

It is an increasingly widespread complaint among the right, that criticism of Britain’s history and aspects of state-sponsored violence, colonialism and racism, has — in the words of Ms Badenoch — overridden “the knowledge that our democratic nation state is the best way for people to live in harmony and enjoy prosperity”.

Born in London, Ms Badenoch was mostly raised in the US and Nigeria, a former British colony, where she said she saw “first-hand what happens when politicians are in it for themselves”.

She returned to the UK at age 16, when her family’s finances in Lagos deteriorated alongside the country’s political and economic situation. She made her way through college, working at McDonald’s, something she often brandishes as confirmation that working hard pays off.

After working within the IT sector, she studied law and then worked in banking before becoming a digital director at The Spectator magazine, where Mr Johnson was once editor.

Where her competitors have experience to fall back on and traditional supporters to lean on, Ms Badenoch hopes her fresh perspective, unsullied by the tumultuous era under Mr Johnson’s leadership, will propel her forward.

“Some may say it’s no time for novices,” she said scanning the room full of faces. “I say it’s no time for steady, as it is a sink into decline. It’s time for change.”

Updated: July 13, 2022, 5:32 PM