Who IS Penny Mordaunt?
She could soon be our next Prime Minister. And that should worry the Tories.
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The Conservative Party is in freefall. It is getting smashed in the polls. Labour is averaging a 10 point lead —not far off what it needs for a majority. Public regret over the Conservative’s flagship policy of Brexit has just hit a record high -only about one in three voters now say Leaving the EU was “the right decision”. And when it comes to the economy the party hit another grim record this week - 74% of all voters now say the government is managing it “badly”.
This is why the Conservative Party’s leadership contest is so critical —not just for the party but the country. It will not only determine who will lead the Tories through a crisis that is not just electoral but existential; it will also decide who will lead the country through a dizzying array of problems -Ukraine, inflation, strikes, a possible recession, dismal growth, stagnant productivity, to name only a few.
It is also why -like many of you?- I am very confused about the stunning rise of one candidate in particular. Seemingly out of nowhere, Penny Mordaunt is now a frontrunner in the race to become the next Conservative leader and our next Prime Minister. But, readers, I must confess -I have no bloody idea who she is.
The forty-nine-year-old Minister of State for Trade is an enigma. We did have dinner once —at a Google conference of all places- where she struck me as an honest, interesting, and thoroughly decent politician who cares a great deal about the country. But I still walked away from the table not really knowing anything at all about where she stood politically or where she would take the country if she ended up in Number 10 (a thought that, to be honest, hadn’t ever crossed my mind until this week).
Yet today, remarkably, she is quickly en route to doing just that. Mordaunt finished in second place in the first and second ballots of Conservative MPs —behind former Chancellor and smooth operator Rishi Sunak (that song now pops into my mind whenever I see him debate). She has amassed an impressive 83 backers including Andrea Leadsom, David Davis, Damian Collins, George Freeman, Michelle Donelan, and economist Gerard Lyons, who advised Boris Johnson. She has a serious base.
And if she makes it to the final round —which looks likely— she will almost certainly defeat Team Sunak —perhaps heavily. The ex-Chancellor might be leading the race among Conservative MPs but among rank and file Tory members -who will determine who wins the final round- Sunak is about as popular as the oppressive heat that is sweeping through the country. Grassroots Tories can smell Sunak’s politics a mile off and they don’t like it. As I said last week, contrary to what some in Westminster would like you to believe he remains very vulnerable —especially outside of SW1.
Recent polling of Conservative Party members by YouGov —who have an impressive panel of party members and have been accurate at past contests— not only suggests Mordaunt is the favourite but would crush Sunak in the final round —by nearly forty points! In other words, a politician who we know next to nothing about, who only 11% of voters can identify, and who they often confuse with the popstar Adele, now has more than a good chance of becoming our next Prime Minister.
There are different theories about why she is doing so well. Some of my friends in the Lords say she assiduously cultivated support among grassroots Tories while nobody was looking. Others say the fact we know so little about her is her strength -that everybody is projecting onto her what they want the next leader to be. But I don’t buy that. Once you pull back the curtain to look at the Wizard of Oz her politics become all too clear. And they are problematic for today’s Conservative Party.
What do we know about Mordaunt? We know she is a Royal Navy reservist. We know she went to a state school. And we know she had a very difficult childhood. Her mother passed away when she was fifteen, leaving her to help raise her brother (her father was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards but recovered). To make ends meet she became a magician’s assistant. And then she became the first person in her military family to go to (Reading) university, where she read philosophy.
Like David Cameron, she then went to work in public relations, including for the Conservative Party and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (though some of her former colleagues were distinctly unimpressed). She was then elected to the House of Commons to represent the good people of Portsmouth North in 2010, has hardly ever rebelled against her party, and has served as Minister for Women and Equalities, Secretary of State for International Development, Defence, and, from 2021, Minister for Trade. Outside of politics, Wikipedia tells me she is also a strong supporter of homeopathy and enjoys astronomy, painting, and, er, Burmese cats.
But what about her politics? We know she voted for Brexit, which puts her on the right side of the realignment of the Conservative Party. It also separates her from rival Remainer candidates Tom Tugendhat and Liz Truss, another frontrunner, who in last night’s debate struggled to reply to the equivalent of a political drive-by when Rishi Sunak asked: “What do you regret more, being a Remainer or a Liberal Democrat?”
But we also know Mordaunt clearly holds views on sex, gender, and perhaps much else which put her firmly at odds with the powerful Right of the party —a faction that has become more focused on pushing back against radical ‘woke’ ideology. Representing around 140 MPs, this is a serious chunk of the party whose commitment to tackling woke-ism is reflected in the growing popularity of Kemi Badenoch’s campaign (who will now almost certainly be a prominent and influential voice in any future cabinet).
One clip that has gone viral on Twitter this week is of Mordaunt standing in the House of Commons saying “trans men are men and trans women are women” (while she has sought to downplay the statement she actually said it twice). For many on the Right, this is, at best, a reflection of her naivety about radical ‘woke’ progressivism or, at worst, evidence that she actually believes in the creed and will become, as one Red Wall MP put it to me last night: “Britain’s first woke Prime Minister”.
Such theories were fuelled this week by leaked documents which appear to show that Mordaunt’s claim that she never supported gender self-identification is false and that she has supported softening the legal route to transitioning. Government support for self-identification ended after she was replaced —which would support Kemi Badenoch’s assertion in the debate this week (watch here). While leaked recordings suggest Mordaunt would like to go much further:
“We have a lot to get done", she says in a leaked clip of a discussion with activists, “so what I think we need to demonstrate is our hunger to get those things done. And we are facing some really difficult times. In the Equalities Office I’ve got a growing list of legislation, some of which I can’t even be seen to be helping with. So we have to be really smart about how we do that”.
Reader, you might not particularly care about this issue or think it is an unnecessary distraction from the bigger challenges that are facing the country. But for today’s Conservative Party, for making sense of this leadership contest, it does matter. The big fear among a large swathe of the party and the surrounding conservative eco-system is that they are about to elect David Cameron 2.0 -a Prime Minister who is far more socially liberal than they are and who would end up splitting the party.
If you want a flavour of the mood right now, here is what some of them said to me this week when I asked about the prospect of a PM Mordaunt:
“They [Conservative MPs] are terrified”, former advisor in Number 10
“Terrified she will make it into the final two”, Red Wall MP
“She is the Member of Parliament for Stonewall”, party advisor
“I am deeply sceptical. More of a liberal trendy than a Red Wall vote winner” -Nigel Farage, GB News and former leader of the Brexit Party
They point not just to Mordaunt’s statements but how she has openly aligned herself with liberal centrists -how she was Chief of Staff for liberal moderniser David Willetts, in 2005, and then, in 2019, endorsed Remainer Jeremy Hunt. Described as “a metropolitan liberal” by the Financial Times, Hunt not only campaigned to Remain in the EU but called to stay in the EU single market and, briefly, for a second referendum. Just how committed to Brexit and making the most of it is she?
And then they point to things she wrote in her book, Greater, a manifesto of sorts. What has particularly irked more than a few Conservatives is how she openly refers to nostalgia, a key pillar of conservatism, as offering a “rose-tinted, revisionist, retro-representation”. Interestingly, she devotes considerable space to putting clear (light?) blue water between herself and very popular television shows in the past such as Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum which, she writes, “featured a full-house bingo card of what is now known as casual racism, homophobia, white privilege, colonialism, transphobia, bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment”.
For some Conservatives, her position and the use of terms such as white privilege are simply too close to that of the woke left, which, they argue, would rather remove challenging moments from British history and pretend they never happened than situate them in their proper historical context and discuss them like adults.
As with the trans issue, it is leading them to ask questions. Would a PM Mordaunt push back against gender ideology or continue to push the pedal down? Would she stop Statuecide and the radical rewriting of British history or join right in? Would she clamp down on increasingly explicit material being given to schoolchildren or let it continue? Would she govern like she Tweets -saying one thing one minute and then another thing the next, disavowing her position when it becomes clear it is unpopular?
And what does she actually believe about much else —Net Zero, immigration, education, NHS reform, devolution, tax, foreign policy? We simply don’t know. This too is alarming her critics who either fear they might be about to hand power to a Cameron mark two or somebody who does not have any solid beliefs at all.
This is why —in one of the better takes on her politics—Will Lloyd over at UnHerd describes Mordaunt not as a traditional Tory who is connected with the party’s voters but a strange and unorthodox combination of political traditions:
There is … a Cameroonian social liberalism, pro-immigration, and pro-LGBT rights; she is a Brexiteer. Her breezy-sunny style is giggly and Johnsonian. Mordaunt appears to not take herself very seriously. She wants to smooth Tory edges, get the party back to basics, and embody a cuddly new One Nation synthesis.
Her efforts to be all things to all voters, Lloyd notes, is not only reminiscent of Blair and Cameron but symbolised by the list of people she approvingly quotes in her book —John Stuart Mill, Margaret Mead, Richard Rorty, Billy Connolly, Gloria Gaynor, Afua Hirsch, Clive James, Malcolm Gladwell, Jo Cox, George the Poet, Barack Obama, Friedrich Hayek, and Marcus Rashford. A glowing tribute to the leading lights of Conservative thought this is not. Hence many are asking: just how conservative is she?
After a deep dive into her past, The Spectator similarly writes:
“To her conservative critics, Mordaunt is not just liberal: she’s alarmingly woke … A cursory glimpse through Mordaunt’s record of pronouncements and positions would suggest these objections are more than swivel-eyed demands for ideological purity. Her views do seem out of step with the Tory mainstream, though they are far from anywhere near coherent enough for a philosophy. She is the sort of woolly, issue-centric, vaguely progressive Tory first heralded by the Cameron-Osborne project.”
The concern among many is not just that Mordaunt is a liberal moderniser in Brexit disguise but that this might all be for show anyway; that much like Cameron —another public relations advisor turned politico— she has no real substance, no real convictions, no deep understanding of the bigger battles that are unfolding. If she was willing to throw her liberal progressive allies under the bus this week when it became clear that her views were out of line with the grassroots, some ask, then won’t she throw the Brexiteers, the Right, and anybody else under the bus, too?
And there is no doubt that some of her views are out of line with much of the rest of the party. As I show in exclusive polling for our paid subscribers below (hit upgrade), when you put Mordaunt’s positions -or positions that are now associated with her campaign- in front of a nationally representative sample of voters, Conservative Party voters, and Red Wallers, there is no doubt they are incredibly unpopular.
Only small minorities of people who will determine the outcome of the next election think we should “refer to pregnant women as pregnant persons”, only small minorities think “a trans woman is just as much a woman as a woman who was born biologically female”, and only a small minority endorse her suggestion that television shows such as Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum are a source of embarrassment. These ideas, symbolic of a deeper worldview, might be popular in London and the university towns but they are not very popular at all across the rest of the country —especially in areas the Conservative Party will need to win if it is to have a chance of holding power.
Penny Mordaunt may well be cutting through in the polls, and may well move on to the next stage of the leadership election. She may even end up repeating one of her old magic tricks by pulling a rabbit out the hat and winning the entire race. But there is no doubt she would be a huge risk for her party and the country. I cannot think of any recent candidate for the office of the British Prime Minister who we have known so little about while not since the days of Cameron has a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party displayed such potential to divide an already divided party.
As many on the Right are now frantically rushing to try and stop Penny Mordaunt from winning the contest they are suddenly realising that rather than Take Back Control they might be about to Lose Control to somebody who appears to hold views that are anathema to them. And that, my friends, as the last decade of British politics shows clearly, could be about to have all kinds of political consequences …
Exclusive polling for paid subs
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