Could Kemi Badenoch be the next prime minister?

Former equalities minister is in the final four in the race to replace Boris Johnson

Kemi Badenoch speaks in ITV’s leadership debate
Kemi Badenoch speaks in ITV’s leadership debate
(Image credit: Jonathan Hordle/ITV via Getty Images)

Tory leadership hopeful Kemi Badenoch faces a make-or-break vote by MPs this afternoon in the contest to replace Boris Johnson.

The former equalities minister has been the “surprise strong contender” in the leadership election, gaining the backing of nearly 60 parliamentary colleagues, said the Evening Standard.

With just four candidates vying to make the final two, Badenoch is up against Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a “battle for the heart of the Tory Right”. If Truss is knocked out, her supporters might propel Badenoch on to the final ballot, to be voted on by party members.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Who is Kemi Badenoch?

The 42-year-old mother of three was born in Wimbledon, southwest London in 1980, to parents Femi and Feyi Adegoke.

Having spent part of her childhood in the US, where her mother lectured, and Nigeria, she returned to the UK at the age of 16. After studying computer systems engineering at the University of Sussex, during which time she worked at McDonald’s to pay her bills, she went on to work as an analyst at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group. This was followed by stints as associate director at Coutts and later as head of digital at The Spectator magazine.

In 2012 she married Hamish Badenoch, with whom she has two daughters and a son.

Having unsuccessfully run for Parliament in 2010, she was elected to the London Assembly in 2015 before being selected for the safe Tory seat of Saffron Walden at the 2017 general election.

“Her back story – going from a sixth former who flipped burgers to pay her bills to an engineering graduate and then on into a promising career in IT before turning to politics – is a political marketing man’s dream,” said Patrick O’Flynn in The Spectator.

Parliamentary career

Elected to Parliament in 2017, Badenoch took just two years to join the Tory front benches. Her brief time in Westminster has been marked “by the relative speed of her ascent and a willingness to embrace controversy and conflict over culture war issues”, said The Guardian.

Made a junior education minister in 2019 after Boris Johnson was elected leader before moving to the Treasury, she has spent two years as an equalities minister in the Department for Levelling Up, and was last year among those touted as a possible successor to Gavin Williamson as education secretary.

During her time in government she has been a leading foot-soldier in the so-called war on woke, and faced “criticism for her overtly trenchant views on culture war issues, notably her belief that racial disparities are often overplayed and not structural, and are exploited for division by those on the left”, said The Guardian.

ConservativeHome readers voted her speech on critical race theory their speech of the year in 2020, despite receiving condemnation from academics after she accused schools of teaching white privilege as an uncontested fact, saying this was breaking the law.

In March this year, the BBC reported that Badenoch was criticised by members of the government's LGBT+ advisory panel over delays in banning conversion therapy.

These confrontations have made her popular among the Tory right, and “it is her extraordinary Commons performances at the dispatch box and in select committees over the past three years – holding the line against the ID politics warriors of the left and those in her own party who decided they couldn’t beat them so might as well join them instead – that have given her the springboard to enter the current leadership contest despite only having been an MP for five years”, said O’Flynn.

Last year, the “pugnacious” politician had a “public spat” with a Huffington Post journalist, accusing her of “creepy and bizarre behaviour” for a routine press query, said the Financial Times. Downing Street called the dispute a “misunderstanding”.

Badenoch was one of the first MPs to throw their hat in the ring for the leadership, just two days after quitting as a junior minister in an attempt to force out Johnson.

Chances of winning

Setting out her pitch for leadership in an article in The Times, Badenoch took aim at the “cultural establishment” and identity politics while defending free speech and pledging to return the Tories to a party of smaller government and lower taxes, plus an iron-clad commitment to Brexit.

Little known outside Westminster, she has surprised pundits by picking up a number of endorsements, including the high-profile and highly sought backing of Michael Gove. The former levelling up secretary, who was sacked by Johnson on his final night in Downing Street before he announced he would stand down, shocked Westminster when he threw his weight behind Badenoch. This early endorsement “transformed her chances”, said the FT.

Bookmakers currently have her in last place and she has come fourth in every vote by MPs so far, suggesting she might be eliminated this afternoon. But among the Tory grassroots members, who ultimately choose between the final two candidates, Badenoch is out in front. According to ConservativeHome’s latest Next Tory Leader survey, she has a double-digit lead.

Gove still has confidence that she might make the final two, saying that MPs had “buyer’s remorse” for initially supporting her rivals, said The Telegraph, and Badenoch has declared she is “in it to win”.

“Few pundits or Tory MPs predicted at the start of the contest that Ms Badenoch… would make the last four,” added the paper. However, it thinks she will become “kingmaker” in the race, rather than the winner, playing a “critical role” in who makes it on to the final members’ ballot.

Whatever happens, Badenoch now looks like a “shoo-in for a senior job”, said Annabelle Dickson on Politico. And when the time comes, Dickson suggested she might be the “Conservative Party’s next leader-but-one”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.