The Conservative Party has form when it comes to youthful leaders. At 24, Pitt the Younger became the youngest Prime Minister ever in 1783, though by that time he had already been Chancellor of the Exchequer and had turned down George III three times already. Nor does youth imply incompetence: Pitt’s first administration lasted 17 years. Lord Liverpool was just 42 when he took office in 1812; he lasted 15 years.
In modern times, the Tories have preserved their penchant for youth. Pitt’s biographer, William Hague, was only 36 when he was elected leader in 1997, having only recently joined the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary. And David Cameron was 39 when he was elected in 2005; five years later, aged 43, he became the youngest Prime Minister for almost two centuries, beating Tony Blair by a few months.
Theresa May was 16 years older than her predecessor had been on taking office. So there is nothing outlandish about proposing that the party should skip a generation, passing over the favourites in their fifties — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Andrea Leadsom. Sajid Javid is still 49; like Dominic Raab and Liz Truss, both in their early forties, he is relatively new to Cabinet office. Matt Hancock, who has risen even faster, is just 40. All these fresh-faced forty-something candidates deserve serious consideration.
Then there are the so-called dark horses: younger hopefuls with little or no ministerial experience, of whom at least ten are in contention. They include the ex-soldiers Tom Tugendhat, 45, and Johnny Mercer, 37; James Cleverley, 49, the mixed-race, media-savvy deputy chairman; and Tobias Ellwood, 51, the defence minister and hero of the 2017 Westminster terrorist attack.
Yet why not think the really unthinkable? A black woman, still just 39, who was only elected in 2017, but has already established herself not only as a deputy chairman, but as a darling of the party faithful. I mean, of course, Kemi Badenoch.
If there is one person who could transform everyone’s assumptions about who the Conservatives are, it is Kemi. She was born Olukemi (“Kemi”) Adegoke in Wimbledon (where she still lives) to Nigerian parents, a GP and a professor of physiology. After a peripatetic childhood in Africa and America, she returned to London on her own, aged 16 with just £100.
She had no privileges or connections, but got herself to Sussex University, where she read computer engineering. While working in banking she took a law degree and joined the Conservative Party. She fought her first seat for the Tories in 2010, aged 30. Five years later, having married a fellow activist, Hamish Badenoch, she was elected to the London Assembly.
It is a tribute to her hard work as a Conservative member that within two years she had been selected for the safe Essex seat of Saffron Walden and in 2017 she entered the Commons. Almost immediately she was catapulted to fame, giving a funny, brave and brilliant speech to the Conservative Party Conference that autumn. It was the warm-up act for Theresa May, delivered to a packed audience still traumatised after the disastrous general election three months earlier.
That speech was all about the British dream, the Tories as the party of aspiration, and it was rapturously received. “I never — never — experienced prejudice in the Conservative Party,” Kemi declared. She used the podium to appeal to party members to live up to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher — of whom she is a great admirer — and to trust the generosity of their best instincts, rather than give in to their worst. Her warm, cheerful personality enabled them briefly to forget the bitter, vindictive and divisive spirit which manifested itself a few minutes later, when the Prime Minister ascended the platform and soon lost her voice in a coughing fit.
Kemi could hardly believe her luck in being elected as an MP, drawing laughter as she asked: “How did that happen?” Before the idea of electing her to the party leadership is dismissed, however, consider this: without a challenge to everything the public thinks it knows about the Tories, they are likely to go down to the most catastrophic defeat in their history. If a populist movement of the Right emerges, as in many countries across the Channel, it could even be game over for the Conservative Party. Then Kemi’s question — “How did that happen?” — would acquire a very different significance.
In the online era, politicians can rise to public prominence with bewildering speed. Nigel Farage sprang from nowhere nine years ago, thanks to a one-minute YouTube video of his monstering of Herman van Rompuy, the then EU Commission President. Kemi Badenoch is already well-liked by the party activists who will have the final say in the leadership contest. She is popular, too, among MPs. The wider public has yet to see much of her, but even Remainers would find this unconventional Brexiteer hard not to like. So what has Kemi got to lose by throwing her hat in the ring?