Never mind kissing babies on the campaign trail…I've just had one!
Never mind kissing babies on the campaign trail…I’ve just had one! That’s the extraordinary situation of the inspiring new minister for Children
- Kemi Badenoch, 39, from Wimbledon is a pro-Brexit conservative minister
- She spoke about campaigning to be re-elected as an MP, with a newborn
- Mother-of-three was made Minister for Children by Boris Johnson this summer
Kemi Badenoch, the new minister for children and families, is the first to admit she is ‘practical’, ‘pragmatic’, and keen on planning. This extends to the timing of her third child.
‘I knew that if I could get it to work so the baby arrived in September, it would be a quiet time in politics.’
Parliament, she reasoned, would take its usual break over the summer and then for party conference season from mid-September to early October. In one sense, her plan worked. Her baby daughter was born in September. But her hope of a quiet few months failed miserably.
First, weeks before her baby’s birth, Parliament was briefly suspended. Next, came the Tory Party conference, during which Parliament was not, as usual, in recess but continued to whirr away with Brexit plans.
Kemi Badenoch, 39, (pictured with her new daughter) from Wimbledon who is a pro-Brexit conservative minister, revealed how she balances politics with family life
Then an election was called and Kemi’s six months of maternity leave became six weeks. ‘It is not ideal,’ she says when we meet shortly after the birth of her daughter. She admits to being sleep-deprived and hormonal.
It’s particularly challenging having a newborn on the election trail as she campaigns to be re-elected as the MP for Saffron Walden in Essex. ‘I had thought, “I’ll have her in the buggy and people will be coo-ing over her”, but that was me being mad, because of course, it’s freezing and raining, the leaflets are getting wet and soggy, I can barely keep myself dry.
‘The truth is I don’t want my baby out in the freezing cold just because there’s an election. But there is no such thing as maternity leave in an election. You can’t tell the voters, “Sorry, I am looking after my baby.” It’s part of the deal.’
Kemi, it is clear, represents something different in the overly white, blokeish world of politics. Although she’s a pro-Brexit Conservative minister, people often assume she’s Labour (‘Very annoying!’), because she’s one of only a few ethnic minority female MPs in Parliament.
Born in Britain, she was brought up in Nigeria before returning to England at 16. She was educated at a further education college in Morden, South London, unlike the private schools two-thirds of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet attended.
But she has absolutely no interest in bemoaning that fact.
‘Being different means you are noticed more, and sometimes that has been helpful,’ she says.
And unlike many politicians who won’t talk about their private lives, she is happy to chat about her obstetric history.
‘I am one of those people for whom pregnancy is an ordeal,’ she says when we meet first at her home in Wimbledon, South London, the day before she is due to give birth. ‘Every bad thing that can happen, happens to me. I am sick from the first day until about 35 weeks. The worst is the smell of coffee and onions. You work in London, you’re on public transport, there are coffee shops literally everywhere.’
Kemi (pictured second left, with brother Fola, sister lola and mother Feyi) is the oldest of three children and spent her childhood in Lagos, Nigeria
At 39, she is dressed in a maternity shift dress from Dorothy Perkins which, with her glasses and braids, makes her look about 25.
‘I have a lot of grey hair if you look closely,’ she says.
She already has a daughter, six, and a son, three, with her husband, Hamish, who works in the City. She also suffers from high blood pressure, which puts her at risk of the potentially fatal condition pre-eclampsia. This is why her baby is to be induced the next morning at St Thomas’ Hospital, in London. ‘The later you leave it, the more likely it can progress into an incident,’ she explains.
Kemi Adegoke was born in 1980, the oldest of three children of a Nigerian family. Her father is a GP and her mother a professor of physiology. When her mother needed obstetric care that wasn’t available in Nigeria, she came to a private Catholic maternity clinic in Wimbledon. ‘That’s the reason I am a British citizen,’ Kemi says.
Just two years after Kemi’s birth, legislation created by Margaret Thatcher came into effect — the Act came into force on January 1, 1983 — and babies born in Britain were no longer automatically eligible for citizenship. Now to qualify, at least one parent of a UK-born child must be a British citizen, a British Dependent Territories citizen or ‘settled’ (a permanent resident) here. Kemi admits: ‘I was very lucky, but just because I benefited from something doesn’t make it right. If it’s not sustainable, then the right thing to do is change the rules.’
Kemi (pictured) emigrated from Nigeria aged 16, she claims black students were treated differently at her sixth-form, Phoenix College
She spent her childhood in Lagos, Nigeria, describing in her Commons maiden speech, in 2017, how she did her ‘homework by candlelight because the state electricity board could not provide power’; how she ‘fetched water a mile away in heavy, rusty buckets because the nationalised water could not get water to flow from the tap’.
She says the broken society she experienced forms the cornerstone of her political beliefs.
‘I was unlucky enough to grow up under a military dictatorship which had very Left-wing, socialist policies. It’s not something I would wish on anyone.’
General Ibrahim Babangida came to power in a coup in 1985 and was president of Nigeria until 1993. Another military ruler, General Sani Abacha, was de facto president until 1998. Hit by currency deflation, Kemi’s parents decided their daughter could have a better future in the UK. Aged 16, she was sent to live with a family friend in Wimbledon who had emigrated from Nigeria.
‘To grow up in a fairly comfortable family and then to move and have nothing, was a challenge,’ she says. She got a job in McDonald’s — ‘I didn’t really have any money to live’ — and went to Phoenix College, a sixth-form.
She was shocked by the poverty of expectation for black students.
Kemi (pictured with her daughter) studied computer engineering at Sussex University, and later went on to do a law degree in the evenings at Birkbeck, University of London
‘Teachers treated us differently from the white people at the college. They assumed we had it tough. They couldn’t tell the difference — and this is where judging by skin colour is a terrible thing — between someone who had perhaps grown up in a very disadvantaged family and had serious challenges, and someone from a stable family who had loads of opportunities.
‘You would have people who quite clearly had special needs —who were autistic, I recognise that now — and it would be like, that is just how black people behave.’
Her view is the opposite; she doesn’t believe in limitations or excuses. ‘Having the same high expectations of people who come from different backgrounds is important.’ She left with two Bs and a D at A-level and studied computer engineering at Sussex University. She worked in IT, as a systems analyst at Coutts Bank and then at The Spectator magazine, where she was head of digital.
So what kickstarted her rapid rise in politics?
In 2005, aged 25, she had what she describes as a ‘quarter-life crisis’. ‘I felt like I’d done the wrong degree, I found work very dull.’
She did a law degree in the evenings at Birkbeck, University of London. She also joined the Conservative Party ‘because it seemed interesting and fun and I wasn’t happy with the way the country was going’.
She met Hamish Badenoch at the Dulwich and West Norwood Conservative Club in 2009, and a year later contested the constituency’s seat against the late Labour MP Tessa Jowell, finishing third.
‘Hamish and I became friends and it took off from there. He helped me deliver my leaflets.’
He comes from a very different background — a mother who emigrated to London from Ireland, public school — but shared her interest in politics, standing as the Conservative candidate for Foyle, in Northern Ireland, in 2015.
He won’t be running this time. She says he has taken a step back to support her political career.
Kemi (pictured) became MP for Saffron Walden in 2017 and was made Minister for Children by Boris Johnson this summer
‘It is very, very difficult to be an MP in two places at the same time — being in Westminster and Saffron Walden is a huge challenge. But now, when I am working and Hamish is not, at least the kids have one parent.’ They married in 2012. ‘He’s incredibly supportive. I always tell people who want to go into politics, “Pick your partner wisely.” Because it can be great — but a lot of the time, it’s awful. Lots of abuse.’
She gets it from both sides, ‘from racists and from people who look like you, who say, “You’re an Uncle Tom, a coconut.”
‘Thankfully my kids aren’t old enough to go online, but other MPs tell me their kids have mental health issues from reading what people are saying. Actually, I don’t check what people are saying about me. But sometimes Hamish checks. I tell him to stop. And he’s like, “I need to know.” But he is sanguine.’
They nearly lost their first child in 2013. ‘I went into hospital for a regular check up at 20 weeks. A student doctor examined me, frowned and said, “I’ll be right back.”
‘I thought, OK, something is wrong. They came back and said, “It looks like you’re going into labour.” They could see the cervix opening.’ The earliest a premature baby has a good chance of normal development is 26 weeks. They said, “We’ll wait 24 hours to check there’s no infection. If so, we can stitch up your cervix. But if there is, we just have to let labour happen.”
‘It was absolutely terrifying. It made my husband ill. His mum took care of both of us. They managed to stitch me up, thankfully.’
Kemi (pictured) sees Brexit as a golden opportunity, and counts Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher among her heroes
When her daughter was born at the normal 40 weeks, all she felt was relief. ‘I would have lost her if I hadn’t happened to have a check up that day.’ She now thinks the cause was an infection. She never had the same problem again.
Kemi became MP for Saffron Walden in 2017 when the previous incumbent, Sir Alan Haselhurst, retired after 40 years. Being a black mother-of-two — she campaigned when her son was five months old — in a seat previously occupied exclusively by white men might have counted against her. But she won with the biggest slice of the ballot since 1935.
‘Essex is where my people are,’ she says. ‘They are straight-talking, no nonsense people. They are salt of the earth; good people working hard. The mindset is very similar to my own.’
Having been made Minister for Children by Boris Johnson when he took over from Theresa May this summer, the political future looks bright for Kemi. She is approved by the Right because her heroes include Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, sees Brexit as a golden opportunity and is loved by political commentators for her unexpected views.
She disapproves, for example, ‘of people saying colonialism ruined my life, even though they were born 100 years after it happened’. And ‘this self-flagellation about empire is, for me, often just a lack of knowledge about what else was going on in the world at that time’.
But she’s also outspoken about traditional attitudes she believes need to change.
Kemi (pictured) plans to resume her maternity leave and return to Parliament at the end of March, if re-elected
‘One of the really interesting things about being a female MP is people don’t understand the domestic arrangements,’ she says. ‘They still think in terms of a middle-aged wealthy squire who leaves their wife and children in the constituency while they’re in London.
‘People don’t understand why you can’t do things on a Sunday, and you say, “I’ve got to look after the children.” And you can almost see them think, can’t your wife do that?!’
She says she spends Monday to Thursday in Wimbledon and Friday to Sunday in her constituency home in Essex. ‘The kids identify the houses by the colours of the doors.’
Having three under six means a live-in nanny is essential. ‘Sometimes I’m in Parliament until 3am,’ she says. ‘By the time I pay the nanny’s pension, national insurance and all that, I probably earn the same as her.’
Turning the point to her advantage, she adds: ‘If childcare can be so expensive for an MP, then how much more for parents working in an average way? It’s why we continue to put more funding into affordable childcare.’
Her plan, if re-elected, is to resume her maternity leave and return to Parliament at the end of March. ‘If you work and have a family, you have to make sacrifices,’ she says. ‘For me the sacrifice I’ve made is money. I’ve decided I’m going to spend all my money on childcare and I’m going to have a fulfilling job — and I will be a weekend, holiday and an occasional evening mum.’
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