This profile was first published on March 27th 2016, and is now republished following the subject’s promotion to International Development Secretary.
Could Penny Mordaunt be the next leader of the Conservative Party? This question might be thought to invite ridicule. After all, Mordaunt has only been an MP since 2010.
But when I asked half a dozen Tory MPs whether she was conceivable as leader, only one of them said the idea was absurd, and he happens to be supporting another candidate.
Another backbencher said he expects the next leader to come from the Brexit wing of the party, and instanced Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel as three of its most prominent members. He reckons those Eurosceptic ministers who opted to back the Prime Minister’s campaign to remain in the EU have severely damaged their chances.
Predicting the next leader of the Conservative Party is a bit like trying to work out, some time in advance, who is going to win the Grand National. The leadership race is almost impossible to predict: David Cameron, who only entered the Commons in 2001, was for many months during the contest of 2005 regarded as an outsider, with good judges saying David Davis was bound to win.
But it is interesting that Mordaunt is at least considered a plausible runner. Last summer she threw a party at Shepherds, in Westminster, to which she invited a large number of MPs.
One of them said, as he arrived at the restaurant with a group of ministers, “Surely this isn’t Penny’s leadership bid,” only to decide that actually it was. Mordaunt has a go-for-it mentality, which emerges at quite frequent intervals in her career, and is accompanied by a gift for publicity.
In 2014 she went on a ludicrous television programme called Splash!, in which supposedly well-known people were taught by Tom Daley how to dive off a high board, and competed to see who could do it best. Her excuse was that she was paid £10,000, of which she donated £7,000 to the renovation of a lido in her constituency of Portsmouth North, and divided the rest between four services charities.
Use of the television set is not, in my household, as restricted as it should be, and one evening I found myself summoned, owing to my interest in politics, to watch a Conservative MP, resplendent in a bright red one-piece swim suit, attempt a tricky backward dive.
Mordaunt over-rotated, as the expert commentator observed, and did a crashing belly flop. Even to watch this was painful. Then she did the same dive again, and belly-flopped worse.
Many of us would have been reluctant to try that second dive. Mordaunt got full marks for courage. She is from a services family: her father was in the Parachute Regiment, and she was named after HMS Penelope, a Second World War cruiser which, as Mordaunt recounted in her maiden Commons speech, “latterly became known as HMS Pepperpot because of her ability to endure massive amounts of shelling and remain afloat and able to return fire”.
She was born in Devon in 1973, was brought up in Portsmouth, and at an early age conceived an invincible admiration of Margaret Thatcher, of whom she later recalled:
“Her ability to escape the normal bounds of politics and penetrate our day-to-day lives is evidenced by the fact that when I was six and when she had been Prime Minister for less than a year I had perfected an uncanny impression of her, which caused Mrs Thatcher to be written into my primary school production of Dick Whittington.”
When Mordaunt was 15, her mother, a special needs teacher, died of breast cancer. She herself went to a comprehensive school and to Reading University, where she read philosophy, after which she progressed through a variety of jobs to become director of Diabetes UK.
But at the same time she pursued her political ambitions. Her family links are to the Labour Party: she is related to Philip Snowden, Labour’s hair-shirted inter-war Chancellor of the Exchequer, and to George Lansbury, who led that party from 1931-35. But in 2003, she became the Conservative candidate in her local seat of Portsmouth North, where at the general election of 2005 she did not quite manage to defeat the Labour candidate, Sarah McCarthy-Fry.
Mordaunt persisted, and in 2010 was elected for Portsmouth North with a majority of over 7,000. One of her early parliamentary roles was to serve on the European Scrutiny Committee, where one of her fellow members says she “asked intelligent and thoughtful questions”, as well as being “absolutely charming”.
Another backbencher says of her: “She was very sound on the Lords Bill [where Mordaunt was one of the 91 Tory rebels]. She doesn’t yet have a huge number of followers. But she is very widely liked.”
David Cameron formed a high opinion of her. In 2014 she was forgiven her rebelliousness and made a junior minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and after the last general election she was moved to the Ministry of Defence, where she is the first woman to serve as Minister of State for the Armed Forces, only one step below the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister had followed his frequent, though in British terms unusual, practice of promoting someone to a department they know something about. Mordaunt is a Royal Naval Reservist, wore naval uniform at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and never misses a chance to proclaim the virtues of the Senior Service.
As befits a Portsmouth MP, her turn of phrase is salty. In the manner of one of Donald McGill’s seaside postcards, she somehow manages to be risqué without being revolting. Her greatest parliamentary success was the speech with which, in 2014, she opened the debate on the Queen’s Speech, where she broke new ground by remarking:
“I have benefited from some excellent training by the Royal Navy, but on one occasion I felt that it was not as bespoke as it might have been. Fascinating though it was, I felt that the lecture and practical demonstration on how to care for the penis and testicles in the field failed to appreciate that some of us attending had been issued with the incorrect kit.”
Will Mordaunt train on? One cannot say. It is more than possible that like her namesake, HMS Penelope, she will eventually be sunk by enemy fire.
But with her constant references to the Navy, she is in some ways a reassuringly traditional figure, who shows a fitting respect for the great naval figures of the past, including her predecessor as MP for Portsmouth North, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes.
In May 1940 Sir Roger hastened in uniform to the Commons to denounce the hopeless pusillanimity with which the campaign against the Germans in Norway had been conducted. He concluded with Nelson’s words, since quoted by Mordaunt:
“I am of the opinion that the boldest measures are the safest.”
This is inspiring stuff, and is the attitude which many Eurosceptics take. If the Conservatives ever find themselves wishing to recruit a high-spirited warrior as their leader, they might do worse than to turn to Mordaunt.