How grown-up is a woman of 28? It’s a funny age, admittedly; even a divisive one. Jess Phillips, the Labour MP, was working for Women’s Aid and bringing up two small children by then. Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, had already been an MP for three years at the same age. But, to be fair, maybe they’re untypical. It’s perfectly normal to be in your late twenties and still not in possession of a settled career, home, relationship or general plan for the rest of your life.
What’s harder to argue, however, is that at 28 you’re not responsible for your own actions or broadly recognisable as the mature adult you'll hopefully one day become. And that’s where the Tory rising star, Kemi Badenoch, got into difficulties.
Asked what the naughtiest thing she’d ever done was, the 38-year-old vice-chair of the Conservative party – presumably well aware of the risks of being mocked forever if she didn't come up with something racier than running through fields of wheat – admitting hacking into a Labour MP’s website a decade ago and plastering it with pro-Tory messages. When people started asking if that wasn't potentially illegal, Tory HQ was forced to insist it was merely a moment of "youthful exuberance" rather than anything more sinister.
Whether you think it’s shocking or just silly, it’s not exactly… relatable. And that’s the problem in a nutshell, because making the Tories more relatable is essentially Badenoch’s job
Well, we've all done things we lived to regret. But it's fair to say most young women’s throw-caution-to-the-wind moments of "youthful exuberance" don't involve guessing a password to get inside Harriet Harman’s website and posting stuff suggesting she’d gone over to the Tories. Whether you think it’s shocking or just silly, it’s not exactly… relatable. And that’s the problem in a nutshell, because making the Tories more relatable is essentially Badenoch’s job.
As vice-chair for candidates, she’s charged with making it more representative of modern Britain – which means getting not just more women or people of colour, but more working-class candidates and people from the regions and what she calls “not just the politics-centric people who come to London” to stand for office. Just as significantly, she was one of a bunch of bright, politically fearless millennial Tories promoted unusually fast this January (she’d been an MP for only seven months when she got the call) in the hope of winning back the kind of 30-something swing voters drawn to Jeremy Corbyn.
Only, so far, it hasn't quite gone to plan. The equally rapidly promoted new vice-chair for youth, Ben Bradley, has already had to apologise for a not exactly millennial friendly blog he wrote when he was 22, arguing that unemployed people should have vasectomies to stop them having children they can't afford. Now it's Badenoch's turn to show that striking a chord with the under-40s isn't as simple as being roughly the right age.
To be fair to her, she was never going to appeal to the kind of people now denouncing her most vigorously, who are of course committed Labour voters. She's not just a Tory, but the kind of full-throttle Tory those on the left often struggle to understand: people who didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths, who have had it tough in the past, but whose challenging backgrounds have left them with a brisk, no-nonsense belief in everyone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. (Her political heroine, if you were wondering, is Margaret Thatcher.) Having grown up in Nigeria, where even middle-class families like hers would sometimes have to manage without running water or electricity, she appears to have limited patience for anything resembling snowflakey behaviour – she first shot to fame after arguing that millennials were too quick to take offence, citing a row about whether Friends is sexist and/or homophobic – and as she herself says, “I don’t always buy some of the things that we just accept in this country as someone else’s fault.” Ask her about knife crime in London, as the Evening Standard recently did, and she doesn’t talk about investing in youth workers to stop teenagers on deprived estates being sucked into gang culture or even banning knife sales. She just retorts that all the kids in Nigeria carried machetes for working on the land, but they didn’t go “carving each other up”.
To be clear, Badenoch is perfectly entitled to draw whatever conclusions she likes from her own life experience. It’s patronising to assume tough childhoods can only lead to one political conclusion, or that Tory MPs from non-traditional backgrounds can't be as tub-thumpingly right-wing as anyone else.
But if the new-generation Tories' job was to help their party move with the times, and make millennial swing voters look again at the Conservatives, then that's invariably the yardstick against which they are likely to be judged – and, right now, they're simply not getting the tone right. Young as they may be, at least in career terms, they can't afford many more such mistakes.