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Kemi Badenoch - the right-wing MP who could become the first Black leader of the Conservative party

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - In the first of our history in the making articles, we'll be exploring the life and career of the cabinet minister, Kemi Badenoch.

Kemi Badenoch was born Olukemi Olufunto Adegoke on 2 January 1980 in Wimbledon, London, to Femi and Deyi Adegoke. Her father was a GP and her mother a professor of physiology. She spent her childhood growing up on both sides of the Atlantic where her psychology professor mother had lecturing jobs.

Life became increasingly hard for her family when Nigeria was thrown into political chaos after a military coup in the early eighties. The country was racked with financial ruin and severe human rights abuses. The Nigerian naira was devalued and the country was temporarily suspended from the Commonwealth for executing nine environmentalists including Nobel prize nominee Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Living in such dire conditions, Badenoch’s father took the difficult decision to send her to the UK. She recalls: that Nigeria’s currency had suddenly become worth 10% of what it had been and “my Dad [had to] spend several months’ pay on my ticket. We went to the travel agent with all his savings stuffed in a plastic carrier bag. He had £100 left when he’d paid for my ticket, and he gave it to me to take to England. So that’s all I had when I arrived.”

“But I was so excited. When I saw my British passport it was like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. It was amazing, a very special privilege to be a citizen of this country. Many people use citizenship as an international travel document, but to me it was much more than that. I think of this country with affection, feeling, loyalty. Its values make it special.”

At the age of 16, Badenoch returned to the UK to stay with her mum’s best friend in Wimbledon. Whilst studying for her A Levels at Phoenix College in south London she worked at Mcdonald’s and other jobs. She told the Times of her time at McDonald’s: “You would have people from college who would turn up and laugh at me because I was there with my hat and badge and I didn’t have any stars. But it was what I had to do. I didn’t have money. My parents weren’t here and I was living with family friends. So I had a roof over my head, but I needed to earn to live. There’s dignity that you just get from working and earning your own money.”

After graduating from Sussex University with a degree in computer systems engineering, she worked for Logica, claiming she was “once the only woman on a building site with 300 men!” She then moved on to work for the Royal Bank of Scotland as a system analyst before pursuing a career in banking. She became an associate director at the private bank Coutts from 2006 to 2013. Developing an interest in law and politics, she began studying law at Birbeck, University of London and completed her LLB in 2009. She then took the tentative steps to move into politics while working as a director of the digital department at the influential right-wing magazine The Spectator. In 2015, she became a member of the National Assembly, going on to retain her seat in the Assembly in the 2016 election.

Badenoch joined the Conservative party in 2005 and spent several years trying to get elected to Parliament. A year after being elected to the National Assembly, she was shortlisted by the Conservative Party for a marginal seat in the Hampstead and Kilburn consistency in the 2017 general election. She was unsuccessful but was ultimately selected as a Conservative candidate for Saffron Waldon, a safe seat for the Tories, which she held with 37,629 votes and a majority of 24,966. In her maiden speech as an MP on 19 July, she described the vote for Brexit as “the greatest vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom” and cited her personal heroes as Conservative politicians Winston Churchill, Airey Neave, and Margaret Thatcher.

In July 2019, Badenoch joined Boris Johnson’s government as a junior minister in the role of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Children and Families). She bounced around several junior ministerial roles before being promoted to Minister of State for Equalities; and appointed Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Within days of her appointments, the latter title was renamed “Minister of State for Levelling Up Communities.”

Her tenure as Minister of State for Equalities was sometimes mired in controversy. During a debate in the House of Commons in April 2021, Badenoch criticised the Labour Party’s response to a report compiled by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which declared Britain was not institutionally racist. Labour had described the report as “cherry-picking of data”, while the party’s former frontbench MP Dawn Butler claimed the report was “gaslighting on a national scale”, describing those who put it together as “racial gatekeepers”.

Badenoch accused Labour of "wilful misrepresentations" over the report and responded to Butler's comments by stating "It is wrong to accuse those who argue for a different approach as being racism deniers or race traitors. It's even more irresponsible, dangerously so, to call ethnic minority people racial slurs like Uncle Toms, coconuts, house slaves or house negroes for daring to think differently."

In a Black History Month debate in the House of Commons in October 2020, she reiterated the government's opposition to primary and secondary schools teaching white privilege and similar "elements of critical race theory" as uncontested facts. ConservativeHome readers voted Badenoch's speech on critical race theory 2020 'speech of the year', in which she said that any school that teaches "elements of political race theory as fact, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law".

Badenoch has been dubbed the UK’s Candace Owens by her critics on the left because of her controversial opinions on race and equality. Shortly after her appointment as Minister of State for Equalities 2021, Vice News said they had received leaked audio from 2018 in which Badenoch mocked gay marriage, referred to trans women as "men" and used the term transsexual which is considered offensive by some trans people. During the comments reportedly made in her Commons office in 2018, Ms Badenoch is alleged to have said: “Now it’s not just about being free to marry who you want, you now want to have men using women’s bathrooms.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner labelled the remarks “disgusting” and LGBT charity Stonewall said the comments were “hurtful and harmful”. In response, a government spokesperson said: “The 2018 comment has been taken out of context, with the Minister making a clear point about striking the balance for equality and fairness when there are multiple and often competing demands between different groups. It should not be used to misrepresent her views.”

Tipped as a possible contender in the run-up for the Conservative Party leadership election in 2019. She instead supported the campaign of Michael Gove. Twenty-five months later, after the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, she threw her hat into the ring. Ranked as an outsider, she campaigned on the “anti-woke” platform and small government pitch becoming the new darling of the right of the Tory party.

"I came to this country aged 16 and now I am standing for prime minister - isn't that amazing? I was born in this country but I didn't grow up here… And I don't understand why people want to ignore all of the good things and only focus on the bad things and use the bad things to tell the story."

According to The Sunday Times, Badenoch entered the race as “a relatively unknown minister for local government” but “within a week emerged as the insurgent candidate to become Britain’s next prime minister". On 16 July, a ConservativeHome survey found Badenoch to be the favoured candidate of members by a double-digit margin. She was eliminated in the fourth round of voting, winning 59 votes in that round, the fewest of the four remaining candidates.

On the 6th September, Kemi Badenoch was appointed Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade. It is her first cabinet post and she’s tipped to take another shot at the top job when the time comes.

“Running doesn’t have to mean winning,” said one admiring MP, who backed Liz Truss for the leader. “Running means getting ready to win later.”



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