(Jonathan Hordle / ITV via Getty Images)

July 20, 2022   8 mins

With Kemi Badenoch’s elimination from the race, the Conservative party lost its chance to win a future. After all, the simplest, if least inspiring case to make for Kemi Badenoch was always that of urging the wavering Tory party to glance at her competition. It is difficult for even the most captive lobby creature to summon up much enthusiasm for any of the remaining candidates. The hustings so far have displayed to the nation a party almost entirely devoid of energy or fresh ideas, indeed of any justification for continued rule: should the party lose the next election, historians will say its doom was foretold this week. 

Certainly, we can all exhale with relief that Tugendhat is out — no doubt the nation clawed back a few seconds on the Doomsday Clock with yesterday’s news. Too anodyne and fundamentally pointless for domestic politics, he revealed himself over and over again too as excitable for the foreign affairs whose glamour and excitement he craved just that bit too much. Unfortunately, we already live in exciting times: the nation requires a firmer hand on the rudder than a man of whom the best can be said is that at least he is not Tobias Ellwood.

But what are we left with? Liz Truss’s Thatcher tribute act, stale a generation ago, has now veered discomfitingly into the realms of bodily possession. Her outreach a few years ago to a supposed British millennial cohort of “Uber riding, AirBnB’ing, Deliveroo eating, Freedom Fighters” threatened even then to make late-stage capitalism finally collapse under the weight of its own cringe. But her ruling out, last weekend, of the very idea of the state setting housebuilding targets, let alone meeting them, as a dangerous form of “Stalinism” proves she is a relic of an earlier age.

Equally, a party that devotes as much time as the Conservatives do to complaining about woke excess would deserve every disaster coming to it if it chose Penny Mordaunt, the very archetype of the woke HR administrator, to fill Johnson’s vacant throne. Leaving aside the warnings from party elders such as Lord Frost of her laziness and inattention to detail, the few sincerely-held beliefs that escape the black hole of her personal philosophy for scrutiny are ones alien and unwelcome to British conservatism. Hostile to everything conservatives — if not the Conservative party — hold dear, lambasting even Civilisation’s Sir Kenneth Clark for scoring lowly on the identity politics scoreboard, Mordaunt is the barbarian within the gates of British conservatism. She may, in time, make Labour a perfectly adequate junior minister, but a Tory leader she is not.

This leaves the frontrunner, Sunak, who as chancellor never saw an opportunity for building infrastructure and state resilience he did not wish to quash, and who has managed to achieve the rare feat of combining pledged allegiance to Thatcherite orthodoxy with a tax burden fit for fighting a world war. Is it an argument in favour of his economic prudence that at least he managed to spare his own complex family finances a share in the voters’ misfortune? It is not a case we can imagine doing well on doorsteps a few years into the recession of historic proportions coming our way: a party ready for Rishi, in these circumstances, is simply one desirous of death.

But, then, perhaps the death of the Conservative party would not be the worst outcome, for the nation or British conservatives themselves. As the political philosopher John Gray observed recently, “Brexit was an invitation to fashion a new political economy for this country, which the British political class declined. Red Tories and Blue Labour believed a market state could be replaced by one fostering intermediary institutions and a common life. But they were small minorities in their parties, and there was disagreement among them as to what a post-liberal agenda would entail. The question of the role the British state would serve in future was left unanswered,” so that now “British politics is stuck in a recurring nightmare”, in which the only desperate hope remaining is that perhaps “a larger crisis – perhaps triggered by the deepening impact of war in Ukraine, or major military conflict elsewhere in the world”, can force us out of our rut.

This is the essential question of British politics. The very point of Brexit, and the precise reason the Tory party acquired an army of Red Wall voters whose hopes and desires it discusses with the bemused, slightly fearful anxiety of colonial administrators trying to govern a semi-pacified tribe, is that a majority of the country believes that the current system is not working: Britons are poorer than they should be, while public services are collapsing. The hopes, dreams and desires of the people are not understood, let alone addressed, by their electoral representatives. In just 12 years time, Britain will be a poorer country than Poland: the dozen years of Tory rule that brought us here do not fill us with confidence that the party has a plan to steer us out of our hard landing.

Yet this was precisely the case for Kemi. She, entirely correctly, negged the nation: of all the candidates, she was the one who was willing to address the fact that Britain is not working, and cannot suffer more of the same. The central thrust of her platform was that “it’s time for change”, and that we are held tight “in the grip of an underlying economic, social, cultural and intellectual malaise”. The very first sentence on her campaign website observed that “in 2016 and 2019 our country voted for change, yet still a sense that things aren’t working remains.” Distinguishing herself from her own party’s policies, she declared that “We’ve had a poor decade for living standards,” as while “inflation has made the cost-of-living crisis acute… the problems go back way further.” Twelve years into a succession of increasingly lacklustre Tory governments, Badenoch was the only candidate offering the possibility of an upward path. Within the narrow parameters of political speech acceptable within the party, she promised to reform the state rather than just offering fantasies of shrinking it, observing that “the machine is not working”, and pledging that “as an engineer, I know how to strip things down and get them to work”.

It is for this reason that Michael Gove, whose political longevity is rooted in a competence that makes him a rare prodigy in his party, backed Kemi, declaring that “Kemi doesn’t just win the argument, she delivers — on getting the Whitehall machine to embark on new policies and on levelling up Britain.” Vague and meaningless though the latter phrase has come to seem, for the last of the Tory big beasts to stake his reputation on an unproven candidate’s ability to direct the machinery of state was surely a dramatic argument in Kemi’s favour.

There is a danger here of overstating her radicalism. Her campaign launch declared that “You can only deliver lower taxes if you stop pretending that the state continues to do everything for your country,” adding that “It’s the scale and structure of government that drives the inefficiencies.” Yet at the same time, taking aim at “crony capitalists” as well as the usual targets, Kemi was the only candidate to address the state’s incapacity rather than merely its size, railing against a cumbersome machinery which “can’t deliver passports and driving licenses on time” and in which “We are spending more than you have ever done, and yet people’s satisfaction with the quality of their day-to-day services is falling.” 

Her argument was that the state should reduce itself to its core priorities, which would “require schools to concentrate on effective whole class teaching of rigorous subjects rather than allocating tight resources to superfluous support staff and peripheral activities” and in which “we should get the police to focus on neighbourhood crime and not waste time and resources worrying about hurt feelings online”. Whatever her rationale for getting there, to achieve a tighter, more competent state on slimmer resources would entail reform of British governance at almost every level: whether or not you liked her framing, this remains a desirable goal in itself.

And indeed, on the multiple domestic crises we face she showed a willingness to use the state, even if only cautiously, that marked her out from the competition. Where Sunak always seemed to be held captive in a small cell underneath the Treasury rather than its master, Kemi proposed to break the Treasury up, creating a new department for economic growth directly answerable to her: a thrilling dash of dirigisme in an otherwise stale debate. On the central issue of housing, she stressed that “I have seen the housing crisis from both the housing department and from my constituency, and I know that supply and delivery [my emphasis] is the problem. We must tackle this in the round to ensure more people can own their own home.” On the cost of living crisis she promised an emergency budget, distinguishing her variant of tax cuts from the competition by stressing that they must be “focused” on “those working hard on low and average incomes”. On the wave of strikes that will follow us through this year’s hard winter, she declared, in a conciliatory tone alien to the other candidates, that “We need to work better with the unions. We need to show them respect.” 

The case made for Kemi by various Tory outlets as a rampaging culture warrior, it must be added, always seemed mistaken in its emphasis. The culture war, tiresome and interminable as it is, is simply a battle for control of the state’s largesse, kept pointlessly alive in the nation’s discourse only as a convenient source of attention and income for the news industry and its roster of tame talking heads. Instead – and this was a major argument in Kemi’s favour – she understood that the culture war is downstream from government funding, and therefore that the only means of finally laying it to rest is by withdrawing the state’s inexplicable subsidy of its identitarian enemies. As she observed, the government has over the past few decades “piled into pressure groups and caved in to every campaigner with a moving message”, draining the state’s budget on sustaining a parasitical caste of activists who frustrate governance at every turn.

The flipside of this imported, baleful emphasis on identity politics was the case for Kemi made by some Conservative commentators that, because she is black, or Nigerian, or a woman, she was somehow “Labour’s worst nightmare.” This was an absurd framing that highlights Conservatism’s unique talent for adopting the worldview of its enemies. Her gender or skin colour were entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not she was the most capable candidate for the helmsmanship of a great, but troubled and flailing nation. It was this question, and only this question, on which she should be judged, and it is on this question that she rose above her peers. 

She may not have been the reanimated Macmillan I desire (or that my Tory peers fear) but neither was she a zombie Thatcher. Her argument that “we can only deliver long-term prosperity and lower taxes if we deliver a smaller and focused state, alongside a wider pro-growth agenda” may not have strayed very far from Tory boilerplate, but was the least bad of the currently available options: now we don’t even have that. Her argument that she supported, simultaneously, “free markets, limited government [and] a strong nation state” suffered from the same internal contradictions of almost all modern conservatism, the first two being antithetical to the survival of the third. Yet of all the candidates seeking to square this impossible circle, Kemi always seemed the one with the greatest possibility of success, who, at least by aiming for reform, may just have brought good governance in her wake.

The party may not have been persuaded by the case for Kemi, at least this time round, but the enthusiasm she summoned up from the party base, and from conservative commentators of wildly differing stripes, left the Tories with a vision, only partly formed but still powerful, of a successful future. She exits the contest as a strong candidate for the years to come, having made the party listen to a message it must heed if it wishes to exist. As Kemi said, in what we must hope will not become one of the great missed turning points in British history, for the Tories as for the country as a whole, “this is no time for steady as it goes, sinking into decline. It’s time for change.”

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.