As a child, Kemi Badenoch carried a machete to school in Nigeria. Rubbing the joints of her right hand, the Conservative Party’s new vice-chairman recalls the blisters it gave her. “I had a very tough upbringing,” she said. “We all had to do something called ‘manual labour’. Mostly it meant getting up at 5am and cutting grass endlessly.
“Everyone had their own machete. Because that’s how you cut grass in Africa. There were no lawn mowers. We had to tend our own patches. I still feel as if I have got the blisters.” At 38, Badenoch has the glow and confidence of a successful woman entrenched in the British middle classes. Elected MP for true-blue Saffron Walden (maj 24,966) last year, she gave the best maiden speech of her generation and is firmly on the up escalator of politics. In last month’s reshuffle, Theresa May promoted her to Tory vice-chairman in charge of candidates, tasked with finding the next generation of talent.
Diversity is a priority, but she says the word should mean more than women and “non-white” people, but also more from the regions, the public sector, and working-class occupations. “Not just the politics-centric people who have come to London.” One of her first acts was to strike her own husband Hamish, a south London councillor, off the list to avoid any conflict of interest. She pleaded with Tory women to get moving now before they miss the deadline to get on the candidates list for the next general election. Women, said Badenoch, tend to spend longer thinking about things. “When my husband and I are getting into a taxi, I always stop the taxi and say where I want to go. My husband jumps in the car and says, ‘This is where we are going’.
“That’s the same when men and women approach wanting to become a candidate. When women write to me, they tend to want a chat or a cup of coffee, talk about what it entails. The men just say, ‘I want to do this, where do I sign?’.
“If all the women are taking six to 12 months taking their decision, they will be at a real disadvantage when we are selecting candidates.”
She rejects quotas or all-women shortlists and says David Cameron’s A-list was “an idea of its time”. Her message to candidates is “keep trying” when the inevitable rejections come in. Her early mistakes included making dry speeches on engineering policy (she took a degree in civil engineering) until someone took her aside and told her to “stop trying to prove her competence and just show us who you are”. It is clear that her tough African childhood forged some no-nonsense political views. “I don’t always buy some of the things that we just accept in this country as somebody else’s fault.”
She was bemused by the furore when Cameron scrapped the educational maintenance allowance for 18-year-olds, for example. “I just remembered what we went through to get to school … the idea you have to pay young people for the privilege of going to school was, I thought, really crazy.”
Similarly, on knife crime she points out that although her fellow pupils all carried sharp machetes, they did not “go carving each other up” in fights. Her conclusion is that banning the sale of knives is less effective than the more controversial use of stop-and-search. “If you let people think they can get away with a certain type of behaviour, people will take advantage of it,” she said.
She names Margaret Thatcher as a political hero (along with Airey Neave and Winston Churchill) and it is tempting to see parallels between Lagos and Grantham as places where hard work and self-reliance are hallowed. Like Thatcher, her parents were senior figures in their community: a GP and a physiology professor who emigrated from Wimbledon when she was a child. “I come from a middle-class background but I grew up in a very poor place. Being middle class in Nigeria still meant having no running water or electricity, sometimes taking your own chair to school.” She recalls vividly the shock of coming back to Britain at 16 and hearing kids call teachers by their first name.
Badenoch is a huge fan of TV hit Game Of Thrones, the blood-and-bonking TV hit. Isn’t it misogynistic? “Noooo, the strongest characters are all women. [The men] all get humiliated. One of the main characters was castrated in a really vile way. I don’t know what’s worse than that.”
Are people too quick to take offence? “I was shocked at the criticism of Friends, which is just about the most watched sitcom ever, about it being racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic etc. With social media it is easy to turn everything into a big issue. I don’t think the level of outrage felt bears any relation to the amount of offence caused.”
Her own experience of social media includes “some pretty horrific N-word abuse” but she seems to take it in her stride. Chatting at the Conservative Campaign HQ, Badenoch speaks fluently and confidently.
Little wonder she is spoken of as a future party leader. “Nobody who starts a new job is asked on Day One if they want to become chief executive. I’ve been an MP for nine months and I am finding my feet.” She also recognises that fame makes her a target. “You can go quickly from rising star to falling star. I’ve seen what happens to other people.”
Everything you need to know about Kemi Badenoch
Born: January 1980, named Olukemi Olufunto Adegoke.
Family: Married to Hamish Badenoch, a Merton councillor who works for Deutsche Bank. One son and one daughter.
Elected: MP for Saffron Walden in the 2017 general election, majority 24,966.
School: Federal Government College Lagos, Nigeria. FE college in Morden, at 16; Engineering at Sussex University; Law degree at Birkbeck.
Political career: London Assembly member 2015-17; Contested Dulwich & West Norwood in 2010 (came third); Voted for Brexit.