International Development Secretary is a funny old job. On the up side, there’s the international travel, and the helpful fact that your department’s budget is sheltered from Treasury raiding parties by virtue of the Act of Parliament ringfencing aid spending at 0.7 per cent of national income. On the down, for Conservative holders of the role at least, it brings the difficulty that lots of natural Conservative voters fundamentally dislike their money being spent in such a way – the knowledge that your own job is the first answer many people give to the question “where should we make cuts?” makes for a slightly uncomfortable gig.
Anyone running Dfid therefore has a choice: fully embrace the target, the spending, and the mission, to the approval of the aid sector and a chunk of the public but not necessarily your own voters; or try to walk the tightrope of communicating deep and continued scepticism while still fulfilling the brief.
Andrew Mitchell, a true believer in the 0.7 per cent target, opted for the former, not least as this was his ideal job in government which he bought into completely and was willing to disagree with Conservative voters about. Priti Patel went for the latter – moving away from her previous stated view that the whole department should be abolished, but still making great efforts to ensure that everybody knew she would not tolerate frippery and waste of taxpayers’ money. The case of the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’ was a good example of her approach: publicly outing what she considered to be poor use of resources, then ending it. The difference between the two approaches is only partly about personal beliefs – it is also no coincidence that for Mitchell this was probably his last role in Cabinet, while for Patel she hoped it would only be her first.
Penny Mordaunt’s position is rather closer to Patel’s than to Mitchell’s – both in terms of politics and career stage. This is her first Cabinet role, and like Patel before her she is tipped for higher things if she performs well. (Indeed, ConservativeHome has decided we made an error in not including her sooner in the possible future leader question on our monthly survey, and will be adding her in from now on).
She isn’t shy. In 2014, Mordaunt took the unusual leap of appearing on Splash! – not just a celebrity show, but one involving the dual dangers to dignity of a) wearing a swimming costume on TV and b) performing high dives. Her proposal of the Loyal Address in the same year also grabbed attention, including some of the more risqué jokes to bridge the gap between a Portsmouth naval mess and the House of Commons, and helped her to win Parliamentarian of the Year.
And yet, as one Government source asked me recently, “Where is Penny?” The International Development Secretary has kept a fairly low profile since taking over from Patel last November – indeed, I gather her team have in some instances turned down the opportunity of quite major media appearances. The untimely fall of her predecessor is one explanation for that – a department whose secretary of state is brought down by a scandal tends to like a bit of peace and quiet for a while afterwards. But there are also, one suspects, political motivations.
Mordaunt is not very Mitchell-ish in her politics. A Leave-supporting Naval Reservist and former Bush campaign staffer, she is not a natural member or fan of what some have called the ‘Aid Blob’. In addition, she represents a naval constituency and has often had to battle against the threat of MoD cuts that could affect bases and operations on her local patch, which will only have sharpened her awareness that voters very often would prefer to spend money on defence than on aid.
Combine that predisposition and experience with the sure knowledge that Conservative Party members and voters are naturally hawkish on public spending, and particularly sceptical of aid spending, and one can see why an ambitious International Development Secretary might be reluctant to appear on TV very often, lest they annoy people by reminding them how much of their tax money is being given away abroad.
It’s in that context that we should read her speech today. What is the chosen headline for this relatively rare major outing? ‘Britain’s foreign aid minister wants to tear up the rules that governing UK’s aid spending’ – sceptical, challenging, radical, reminding people that she is there to champion their interests and not to represent the aid industry. Mordaunt is continuing the push launched by Patel to secure international agreement to reform the definition of aid, to allow elements of defence spending and disaster relief to count towards the target.
“We need to ensure that how we are meeting the 0.7 is sensible and works for the British public in the long term, so we are focused on ensuring that there is nothing that hinders the most effective use of those funds,” the International Development Secretary said today, in a speech heavily laced with references to Global Britain, aiding defence priorities and supporting new trade opportunities. That’s right and sensible, but it is also the approach best targeted to further bolster her approval ratings among the faithful.
Notably, however, Mordaunt is still willing to get involved in political fisticuffs when the means, motive and opportunity align. Last month, in her capacity as minister for women and equalities, she took on the Prime Minister over the question of whether abortion law in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the UK, following the referendum in the Irish Republic. That stand became public knowledge, helped along by statements about her views on the matter that appeared to come from sources close to her. It was a timely intervention, done with a relatively light touch and with some organised support from various former ministers, too.
If you’re still wondering “Where’s Penny?” here is your answer: biding her time, choosing her words and moments carefully.