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Artillery Row

It should have been Kemi

The Tories may have just thrown away the next election

Conservative MPs have made a catastrophic mistake. Kemi Badenoch — the charming and tough former Equalities Minister, who had taken bold stances on issues like free speech, housing and migration — has just been knocked out of the Conservative Party leadership race.

With this decision, Tory MPs have said goodbye to their strongest chance of re-uniting their party, stabilising the country, and moving on from the wreckage of the last two years towards another election victory. 

Kemi Badenoch was a golden ticket. Conservative members — who, according to Conservative Home, favoured her by a massive margin in any “final two” run off — could see it. The media could see it. The Labour Party most definitely could see it. Tory MPs, sadly, could not.

I am not quite sure what possessed them. Perhaps it was fear: the fear of handing over to someone they regarded as inexperienced. “We need a safe pair of hands,” they told each other, in between sipping pints on Parliament’s sweltering terrace; Badenoch’s “not ready”. 

Both main parties have been here before

Both main parties have been here before: rejecting more attractive leaders in favour of tried-and-tested old war horses. More recently, this approach yielded Gordon Brown and Theresa May. Further back, Jim Callaghan and Alec Douglas-Home. And what of “leaps of faith”? Well, they produced Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron. Only Conservative MPs could consider this history and plump for the don’t-rock-the-boat option.  

I suspect the Right’s somewhat eccentric notion of hierarchy will have had something to do with it, too. 

It was “Liz’s turn”. Truss is foreign secretary and it is inarguable that she understands high office. But, she is also … well, weird. The nasal voice; the maladroit presentation. The Margaret Thatcher cosplay. As Tory Twitter worked itself into a frenzy over the last week it became obvious who supported Truss because they kept noting that “charisma doesn’t matter”. 

But charisma does matter. A Prime Minister must be able to communicate — to connect — and the harsh reality is, as we saw in both TV debates, Liz Truss has nothing on Badenoch. She is May 2.0; in fact, I give it a week before the Trussbot starts dancing.

Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt are also flawed. Sunak is slick, yes, and better known but he is intimately embroiled in Johnson’s car crash, and there are serious concerns over the optics of his wealth. 

Mordaunt, meanwhile, is the worst of the lot

Mordaunt, meanwhile, is the worst of the lot. She may on the face of it present herself as a traditional jolly hockey sticks Tory – a kind of Hattie-Jacques-on-shore-leave type – but her politics are quite different. Culturally, she is more extreme than many Labour politicians, viewing harmless sitcoms such as Dad’s Army as “racist” and deploring the colonial legacy of Britain’s honours system. 

Her views on sexuality and gender are even more controversial. She is gaining a reputation as worryingly “economical with the actualité”, and it is likely that – if, God help us, she did win – a significant chunk of the “conservative family” simply would not accept her, viewing a period in opposition as preferable to propping up her agenda.

A Kemi Badenoch premiership would have freed the Conservative Party, and the country, of every one of these problems. She offered intellectual ballast, ideological commitment and a history-making fresh start. The other candidates are all, to some extent, continuations of the old regime. Badenoch would have blown apart the consensus and opened up new road.

The only choice for Conservative MPs and members now is between two years which are very difficult or two years which are existentially difficult. 

I’ll admit a bit of me is relieved by what has happened: Badenoch was dangerously close to sucking me back into party politics. I can now return to my “bollocks to the lot of ‘em” position – which is far less stressful, and no doubt better for my career. 

But I am sad that Tory MPs turned such an extraordinary opportunity down. This is like the Conservatives picking Willie Whitelaw in ’75, or Labour swinging behind John Prescott in ’94. It is a repeat of picking IDS over Michael Portillo in 2001. Conservative MPs went out to lunch today and, when given the option of three plates of cold tripe or some caviar, said, “cold tripe, please”. 

Kemi Badenoch might still be Prime Minister one day, but perhaps she’ll have to be Leader of the Opposition first. Given the state of the Conservative Party, she may not have long to wait.

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