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Artillery Row

Is Badenoch ready?

The stand-out Conservative looks less convincing with each interview

Kemi Badenoch is the uncontroversial favourite to be the next leader of the Conservatives. She was voted Conservative Home Minister of the Year in 2023, and topped its “Cabinet League Table” in April.

This is no surprise. She has distinguished herself by speaking out on red meat issues like critical race theory and trans activism — putting herself head and shoulders above other younger Tories like Alicia Kearns or Dehenna Davison, whose claims to being “conservative” are about as plausible as a tuna fish’s claim to being a fruit.

She has rightly criticised the dependence on mass migration as an economic sticking plaster, and she has defended British history against its demonisers. She has, in other words, said a lot of the right things.

But what kind of appeal could Badenoch have beyond the sort of people who vote in polls at Conservative Home? She’s been on a media tour this week, defending the Conservatives and promoting her proposed clarifications to the Equality Act — which would exchange “legal sex” as the standard to be met with “biological sex”. 

To say it isn’t going well would be a gentle understatement.

Look, I get it. Journalists are a fantastically irritating species — full of undeserved self-regard and baffling self-importance. I get why politicians dislike spending time with them. (I barely tolerate spending time with myself.) But you have to deal with them to succeed in politics. You can charm them or you can bully them but you can’t do what Badenoch is doing — sulk.

First, Badenoch had a tense conversation with Mishal Husain on Radio 4. At issue was the distinction between “legal sex” and “biological sex”. As Iain MacWhirter writes, there are grounds for confusion here. If the Conservatives are going to keep the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which allows people to change their legal sex, what does “legal sex” even mean? Badenoch was less than confident — retreating into complaints about the line of questioning without displaying the wit to bend Husain to her will. 

Soon, Badenoch was on Politics Live with Keir Starmer’s biographer Tom Baldwin. Baldwin lifted his finger as he made a point and Badenoch reproached him. “Please don’t point at me like that. It’s unnecessarily aggressive.” Of course, if Baldwin had been standing in Badenoch’s face, jabbing his finger at her as if it was a flick knife, this response would have been understandable. A joke about his posturing might also have landed. Humourlessly admonishing Baldwin for an unexceptional gesture, though, looked snappish and defensive.

Badenoch retired to Twitter, where she retweeted a post from J.K. Rowling. Perpetually outraged cockwomble Ian Dunt had posted:

Badenoch quite staggeringly dismal. Just a spiteful, toxic political personality. The full package: her policies, her arguments and her manner are all ghastly.

Rowling had replied

Kemi Badenoch and I might not agree on a lot, but how often are male politicians called ‘spiteful’? And what’s the issue with her manner, Ian? Did she fail in womanly sweetness, kindness and deference?

It’s hard to blame Badenoch for amplifying a supportive comment from the most famous author in the world. Who among us wouldn’t at least struggle not to do so? But Rowling’s post is still preposterous. “Spiteful” would be the mildest pejorative that I have ever aimed at Tony Blair. And of course a politician’s manner is significant. For all the hateful comments that I aim at Mr Blair, he had a genius for seeming warm, engaged and empathetic. If you think that shouldn’t matter then, well, fair enough — but take that up with the voters because it does to them. 

One imagines Margaret Thatcher would have positively basked in being hated by slur-spewing leftists like Ian Dunt. It would have proved to her that she was doing something right. You have to mock that kind of person, if you acknowledge them at all — not complain about them being big meanies.

I’m not sure that Badenoch is ready for prime time. She’s going to have to defend the details of her ideas if she becomes Leader of the Opposition. As I’ve written myself, with reference to her guidance for schools on sex and gender — which was larded with ambiguous qualifications — they can be “maddeningly vague”. It isn’t going to look good if she can’t defend them without hardening into vexed defensiveness. It didn’t work for Jeremy Corbyn and it isn’t going to work for Kemi Badenoch.

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