Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
These days, Britain’s Tory Party is not unlike the neverTrump GOP in the U.S. The problem is that so far, at least, there’s no close British approximation to Trump. When Boris Johnson ascended to the prime ministership, to be sure, some of us who had read and admired his Spectator columns for years thought that, after being handed the reins of power, he might very well deliver the goods in a way not unlike The Donald. Alas, no. As it turned out, being a sharp, snappy political writer – even one who, thinking on his feet in front of a live audience, can put up a witty argument for the superiority of classical Greece to ancient Rome – doesn’t necessarily mean that one will be a first-rate head of government.
It’s still depressing to look back on it all. The Tories won the 2020 election by a landslide – giving them a clear mandate to take back Britain from the London-based progressives – but Boris, for all his power, did less with it, at least in that regard, than any of his admirers could ever have expected. Yes, he got Brexit done. But taxes went up anyway. So did rates of illegal immigration. He ordered a very strict lockdown (which he famously violated) and pursued an environmental policy that might have been cooked up by the EPA. As “woke” ideology spread – a far more dangerous virus than COVID-19 – he repeatedly resisted opportunities to score meaningful victories against it that would only have enhanced his level of public support. Perhaps most appalling, during his tenure, horrific revelations of mass grooming-gang rapes kept on coming even as the nation’s police, to their everlasting discredit, remained far more interested in locking up critics of Islam than in nabbing Muslim rapists. But B.J. just shrugged it all off, seeming strangely detached – perhaps, some wondered, uneasy with power.
Which, of course, is why the Conservatives, taking advantage of a relatively trivial scandal or two, finally decided a few weeks back to give old Boris the heave-ho and find a new party leader.
The process for doing this is not terribly straightforward. You start with a list of candidates, which in a series of votes over a period of days is winnowed down first by two, and then one by one, until you’re left with the winner. In other words, it’s like musical chairs. A key detail: until the very last stage, the voting is restricted to Conservative Members of Parliament; the party’s rank-and-file voters aren’t asked for their opinions until the whole thing comes down to two candidates. Under this system, Baghdad-born Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi, who was a Brexiteer, and longtime front-bencher Jeremy Hunt, who was a Remainer, were eliminated on the first ballot on July 13. After that, Suella Braverman, a daughter of African parents who is unashamed in her celebration of the British Empire, went down on the second and Tom Tugendhat, a China hawk who voted Remain, on the third.
At that point there was still hope. Because the best candidate, and the one whom Tory voters around the country overwhelmingly supported, was still in the race. Her name: Kemi Badenoch. She’s 42 and, for all her smarts and maturity, has an energy and charm that make her seem even younger. Born in the U.K. but raised mostly in Nigeria (where her grandfather was a Methodist clergyman) and the U.S. (where her mother was a psychology professor), she returned to Britain in her teens, working at McDonalds and as a software engineer before attending law school and then advancing from one impressive position to another in the financial sector. She entered Parliament in 2015. An admirer of Churchill and Thatcher, she was a fervent Brexit supporter and is an outspoken critic of identity politics; she roundly dismisses the left’s oikophobic tub-thumping about British colonialism and views some feminists’ hysterical eagerness to cry “sexual harassment” as a sign that Britain has grown more “puritanical” over the years.
Since Badenoch is black, Labourites give her much the same treatment that like-minded Americans give to Larry Elder, Clarence Thomas, and Candace Owens. One humorless left-wing comic, for example, called her “a marionette of the establishment.” But Badenoch punches back twice as hard , rejecting the concept of “white privilege,” calling on leftist opponents to stop serving up “confected outrage” about race, and denouncing “the teaching of contested political ideas,” such as Critical Race Theory, “as if they are objective fact.” “I grew up in Nigeria,” she has said. “I don’t need people whose only experience of being black is being an ethnic minority in the U.K. to tell me what that means.” And when one interviewer brought up purported Tory racism, she shot back: “The prejudice that I encounter is always from the left.”
Briefly put, she’s incredibly smart, broadly knowledgeable, articulate, self-possessed, and gutsy – a no-nonsense expounder of good old-fashioned British common sense. In debate, she shines in a way that brings Mrs. Thatcher to mind. So, given that the Tory establishment is essentially Labour lite, nobody expected her to be the last person standing when the game of musical chairs was over. She fell out of the competition after the fourth vote, on July 19; the next day, happily, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, a slavish advocate of gender ideology, authoritarian hate-speech legislation, and other progressive rubbish, was voted off the island. And this left two hopefuls to place before the nation’s Conservatives: former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
About which one can only say, as nobody says in the U.K., meh. Sunak, the son of Africa-born Punjabi Hindus, who was Boris’s wingman before becoming his Brutus (and whose campaign slogan, “Ready for Rishi” – with the final “i,” on his official logo, serving also as an exclamation point – recalls the “Jeb!” fiasco), is notorious for his love of high taxes; Truss, a daughter of far-left parents who looks like a female British PM from Central Casting, is, or at least was, a Remainer, although she’s supposedly better on taxes than Sunak. Both are Oxford grads. (Kemi went to the universities of Sussex and London.) While both seem eager to avoid the issue of Muslim grooming gangs, Truss announced on July 27 that she’d outlaw wolf-whistling on public streets.
One can only hope that whichever one of them wins will appoint Kemi Badenoch to a top cabinet post. If you believe in omens, by the way, the first TV debate between Sunak and Truss, which took place on July 26, wasn’t promising: while Truss was answering a question, the host, Kate McCann, fainted (probably from boredom), causing a loud offscreen clatter. Truss, who’d been talking about standing up to Putin, looked aghast and useless; she stood there stock still for a couple of seconds before her political instincts kicked in and she slowly and uneasily made her way over to McCann. So much for standing up to Putin.