After moving from Nigeria, staunch ‘Leave’ campaigner and newly elected MP Kemi Badenoch says Brexit is a golden opportunity
It’s over a month since Kemi Badenoch gave her maiden speech in the House of Commons yet her words are still the talk of the town.
With high emotion, Badenoch described herself as an example of the “British dream,’ the African ‘immigrant who came to the UK aged 16 and who became a parliamentarian” in one generation.
As someone who experienced first-hand the inequities of corrupt, socialist regimes – having grown up in Nigeria often without water or electricity – she became a Conservative politician.
Even more electrifying was her rousing support for the Brexit vote which she called the “greatest ever vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom.”
“The vision of global Britain as a project is, as a young African girl, [something] I dreamed of becoming part of.”
“As a British woman, I now have the great honour of delivering that project for my constituents in the greatest Parliament on earth.” Badenoch has set Tory hearts fluttering and is being hailed as the brightest of the new MPs from the 2017 general election.
You can see why. Badenoch is impressive in person: crisp and precise in manner with the loveliest of husky voices. She’s also full of humour, laughing out loud when I ask her about the impact of the speech.
“Everyone is so fascinated that I voted Leave. I find that interesting in itself. As an economic liberal, I want to see Britain trading more freely around the world.” She believes that Britain “will be fine whatever happens” but believes that Brexit “presents the country with a great opportunity.”
Yet the EU’s reaction to the UK’s departure has hardened her view. “I don’t like the way the EU leaders are trying to punish us or the language of divorce. It’s a business partnership, not a marriage. If something is not working well, you should be free to leave it.”
Badenoch is used to sailing close to the wind over Brexit – her husband, Hamish, of Anglo-Irish descent, is a staunch Remainer who works in the City. “We have had robust arguments but respect each other’s view.”
“I’m for a healthy transitional period – so long as it’s not permanent limbo – as no one wants a cliff-edge. There will be a deal done, it’s in everyone’s interest. But I don’t want to be Mrs Brexit, as my interests and concerns are much broader.”
Her path to winning Saffron Walden – one of the safest Tory seats in the country – has the wonder of a fairytale. We meet at the local party office – which is also my home constituency – after one of Badenoch’s first surgeries and she’s exhilarated.
Her first impressions? “There is a fragility to the area despite its apparent wealth which is worrying. I will be working closely with the councils to see what more can be done to strengthen the local economy, particularly for small businesses and independent shopkeepers.”
Some say she was lobbed into the seat by Central Office as the ‘young, female black’ candidate. Au contraire. She was the outsider who beat the favourite after winning over the locals. As one Tory dowager told me: “She’s a breath of fresh air. We had to have her.” What’s more, she won with a majority of 41 per cent, the biggest slice of the ballot since Rab Butler in 1935.
Born in London, because her mother came to the UK for medical treatment, the 37-year-old ‘Nigerian oil boom baby’ grew up in Lagos where her father was a GP and her mother a professor of physiology. The family travelled with their mother extensively to the US while she was lecturing but coming to the ‘UK to study was always my dream.’
With a £100 in her pocket and her passport, Badenoch arrived in London aged 16 to study part-time A levels at an FE college in Morden, paying her way by working at MacDonald’s among other jobs. “Most of the students were from ethnic minorities and the expectations for us were low. The poverty of low expectations must change. Schools and teachers matter.”
“Most of the students are from ethnic minorities and the expectations for us were low”, she says. “The poverty of low expectations must change. Schools and teachers matter.”
She became an apprentice engineer, studying at Sussex University. “My father thought engineering was just about good enough.”
While working as a software engineer, she took a part-time law degree at Birbeck College and then worked for Coutts bank as a systems analyst for nine years. Her most recent job was as digital director at the Spectator, making her the third inmate to enter the Commons alongside Nigel Lawson and Boris Johnson, before joining the London Assembly as the Conservative’s economic and policing spokesman.
The biggest influence on her free market thinking is the work of Thomas Sowell, the American-African libertarian economist, who is well known for being against affirmative action for minorities. “I’ve even converted centre-left friends to the right by persuading them to read Sowell.”
Convincing the centre-right minded to talk about their values to their kids and friends, she says, is a must if the Conservatives are to survive.
“We must be less dry, less technical and tell our story better and with more emotion”, she says. “We mustn’t be shy about explaining those values: the other side does it all the time.”
And it can be done. Her “greatest triumph” was showing the former Marxist headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, who runs the Michaela free school, that she was really a Conservative at heart. “Katharine now admits I converted her.”
Yet Badenoch accepts some markets are broken and need reform. She lists energy, rail and student tuition loans as three that “should take top priority”.
“The interest being charged is too high on loans. There should be more of a market in loans with bursaries as they have in the US”, she adds.
She says that increasing productivity in the UK is also essential. “We have sacrificed productivity for higher employment and lower wages. That was the right decision as people not having work is something I never want to see in the UK.”
“I’ve been out of work myself and hated it. Any work, even on a minimum wage, is better than none. My greatest fear, for us personally, is that either Hamish or I will lose our jobs, which is why we are so financially frugal.”
There were two lightbulb moments that shaped her political philosophy, and persuaded her to stand as an MP. The first was at the Hay Festival when she heard speakers “claiming that ethnic minorities all suffer from institutional racism”, something she says she does not recognise.
“The left and the liberal elite think they have a monopoly on the caring issues, whether it is diversity or refugees. Of course we have a moral obligation to help refugees but what is important – and more difficult to do – is to look at what works when they come; can they find work? Do they integrate? Do they take on British values?”
The second came during the Make Poverty History movement in 2005 when, as part of Conservative Future, she led David Cameron’s Globalisation and Poverty Policy Group. It’s here that she saw first-hand what she believes was the arrogance of “white men thinking they can save Africa.” Bob Geldof, who was also involved, was “rude and patronising” to everyone.
“This was the last straw for me. What has helped and is helping African countries is free trade and enterprise, not more aid and more virtue signalling.”
“There are also side effects of immigration that people rarely think about. My father, for example, had to close his GP surgery because he could not hire enough nurses because so many of them have emigrated. It should be hands up, not hand outs.”
Badenoch loathes the idea that race trumps all as the worst of identity politics. “My children are of mixed race and I want them to feel that this is their country – their father’s family has been here for thousands of years.”
She accepts that she must speak out too. “I hate the whole black thing but if people cross the line then I have to stand up and say so.” Which she did when Anne Marie Morris, the MP, used the N- word in the Commons recently. “I went to the Whip’s Office to complain, as did others. She was suspended that day. The party is getting better at dealing with these issues, far better than Labour’s position on anti-semitism.”
Expect to hear much more of Badenoch over the coming months.