Badenoch Doesn’t Rule Out Tory Leadership Bid After UK Election

(Bloomberg) -- Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch failed to rule out running to succeed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as Conservative Party leader if the governing party loses next week’s election, as she clashed with her would-be Labour successor Jonathan Reynolds on Brexit, green energy and worker reforms in a Bloomberg debate.

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Badenoch, currently favored by bookmaker Paddy Power to be next Tory leader, dodged the question when she and Reynolds were asked if they aspired to ever lead their parties. National polling puts Labour on course to easily win the UK general election on July 4, ending the governing Conservatives’ 14-year stint in office and putting leader Keir Starmer on course to succeed Sunak as premier.

“I think it’s obvious that question was for me,” Badenoch said on Monday in the debate at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London. She said her current post had been the “job of a lifetime” that was “a lot easier” than being premier. She said questions about the Tory leadership would be settled after the vote, declining to rule out a run.

Reynolds also failed to rule out a future bid, saying his focus was on being the country’s next business secretary.

The two politicians disagreed over their approach to ease trade friction with the European Union, reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050 and how to grow the UK economy. Where they appeared to be in agreement was in relation to debt-laden Thames Water, which serves about a quarter of the UK population, and is in financial crisis.

Reynolds ruled out nationalizing the company because “people shouldn’t expect the state to bail out bad investments.”

Still, he wasn’t as candid on whether Labour would accept a role for the European Court of Justice as part of a veterinary deal it wants to negotiate with the European Union to ease friction in the trade of fresh food. Senior EU diplomats have told Bloomberg that such an agreement is negotiable, as long as it’s overseen by the ECJ.

“I’m not going to give away our negotiating hand entirely,” Reynolds said. “In any trading relationship we should always be seeking to make it the smoothest, easiest relationship.”

Badenoch said that Labour is not being honest about what it would need to give up in order to forge a closer trading relationship with the EU. Bloomberg reported earlier Monday that UK officials, EU diplomats and even senior Labour figures believe leader Starmer will struggle to deliver a significantly different trading relationship unless he relaxes his pledge to keep the UK out of the EU’s customs union and single market.

Reynolds said Labour’s plans would provide UK business with the certainty it has craved since Brexit, and which was damaged by former premier Liz Truss’s chaotic 7-week stint in office.

While Badenoch acknowledged that Truss’s tenure showed “what happens when you do not try to balance the books,” she sought to persuade the audience of business figures that they should be scared by the prospect of a Labour government.

“You should be terrified about surrendering your business, the economy, tax to Labour,” she said.

She said business doesn’t want Labour’s plan for workers rights, which includes an end to ‘fire and rehire’ and banning so-called zero-hours contracts, which Reynolds sought to defend as “pro-worker, pro business.”

They were also split on the global shift to renewable energy which Reynolds described as “one of the greatest opportunities that’s ever existed.” Badenoch instead said the UK’s legally-binding target to reach net zero is both an opportunity to be seized and a cost to be mitigated.

“We need to be able to adapt when circumstances change,” she said, pointing to the Covid-19 pandemic and the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Tory Voters Are Greener Than UK’s Rishi Sunak Thinks

While Sunak has rowed back on the country’s green targets, stressing that net zero shouldn’t burden ordinary Britons with what the Tories describe as undue costs, Labour plans to establish a publicly-owned energy company to rapidly invest in green infrastructure.

--With assistance from Alex Wickham.

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