July 12, 2022 - 5:30pm

Old Queen Street, Westminster

“It’s time to tell the truth”, said Kemi Badenoch, as she launched her leadership bid this morning.

Can you handle the truth though? Britain is as stagnant as it was in the Seventies. Productivity is a joke. Trying to get a passport or a doctor’s appointment invites entry into a netherworld of forms, queues, and bafflement. Want a driving test? Bribe somebody. GDP stubbornly refuses to rise. There are rising barriers to trade, inflation, war, an ageing population, and an absurd planning system. The truth hurts.

The MP for Saffron Walden knows all of this. It’s why she is standing in front of us. She says the truth will set us free, rather than making us all scream, then apply for Australian visas.

Westminster is still being suffocated by a tropical heatwave. Nobody has slept for days. Everybody smells thickly of caffeine and body odour. Kemi’s crowd is noticeably younger than any other candidates I have seen. They arrive in tiny lifts, without ties. Maybe they are the future. There are discussions about how sweaty Sajid Javid was yesterday — a form of cut through, I suppose. And a rumour: which candidates’ donors are flooding the betting market to make them look more popular than they actually are?

Anyway: Badenoch. She is inexperienced, the risk candidate. Her major backer is Michael Gove, who was accused last night by Steve Baker of secretly remaining in Rishi Sunak’s camp. As Badenoch speaks, Dominic Raab comes out for Sunak. He is the inevitability candidate.

She sets out her plan. There is too much regulation and too much tax. Badenoch calls Net Zero “unilateral economic disarmament”. In her analysis, economic decline is mirrored by cultural malaise. Pressure groups and activists and Quangos clog up the culture, just as bureaucracy slows the economy. We know she is serious about culture because the gender neutral toilets here have been turned, with masking tape, into “men” and “ladies”. 

Badenoch will “discard the priorities of Twitter” and vows that the state will perform its basic functions again. She promises a “sophisticated” means test for pensioners’ winter fuel allowance, which makes the young Tories in the room nod and smile. She does not have any jokes, but their absence is explained when she says she is an engineer. She does not lean too heavily on her life story, but mentions that she worked in McDonald’s as a teenager. Michael Gove does that loose hand clap thing he does.

But the assertiveness that has given her a formidable reputation in the Commons is missing. She speaks softly, and rather quickly. It feels like the room is willing her to be something she is not quite ready for.

Badenoch’s pitch is not that distinct from the other candidates. All are promising a smaller, more efficient state. Most of them are where the Telegraph is on the culture wars. Her promise is her character — only she has the gift of facing unpleasant facts, like a sea captain in a Conrad novel, she is “facing it, always facing it”. There is an obvious contrast here with the late Prime Minister, and the wilder promises of other Tories in the race.

Whether it makes electoral sense to tell the truth to the British, who have a long history of picking cavalier charlatans over grim truth tellers as leaders, is not something Badenoch is likely to find out. At least not at the next election.