Penny Mordaunt: from magician’s assistant to Tory leader favourite

The trade minister and staunch Brexiteer is winning over Conservatives in bid to succeed Boris Johnson

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt arrives at a press conference to launch her leadership bid on Wednesday
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Political pundits are backing Penny Mordaunt as a surprise contender in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party.

The trade minister has become the bookmakers’ favourite in the contest and has come second in the first two rounds of voting by Conservative MPs this week. With 67 votes, she was beaten only by former chancellor Rishi Sunak on 88 last night. In the second round this afternoon she picked up 83 votes to Sunak’s 101.

Mordaunt came ahead of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in both rounds and is also the “clear favourite” among party members, according to YouGov.

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The “fizz and chatter, for now at least, is about Penny Mordaunt”, said Chris Mason at the BBC. If she were to win, Mordaunt would be “the most little-known prime minister on assuming office of modern times”.

So, who is Penny Mordaunt?

Mordaunt and her twin brother, James, were born in the Devon resort town of Torquay in 1973, but lived in Portsmouth from the age of two. The children of a former paratrooper and a special needs teacher, the twins “did everything together” and had an “idyllic” early childhood packed with extra-curricular activities including ballet, canoeing and football, said The Sunday Times.

But “tragedy struck” when Mordaunt’s mother died from breast cancer when the twins were just 15. “I was a carer from the age of 13, and looked after my family until my father remarried when I was 18,” then defence secretary Mordaunt told the paper in 2019.

After leaving school, Mordaunt worked in a Romanian orphanage for a year before becoming the first person in her family to go to university, studying philosophy at Reading. She supported herself with various jobs including work at local factories by day and as a magician’s assistant at night.

Mordaunt’s parliamentary career

She began her political career as a press officer for the Conservative Central Office. The then head of research encouraged her to stand for Parliament, after noticing that Mordaunt “was head and shoulders above all the bright young things in the building”, said The Sunday Times.

She failed in her first attempt to win the Portsmouth North seat from Labour, in 2005, but went on to win five years later with a swing of 9%. She won again in 2015, 2017 and 2019, each time with an increased majority.

In 2014, she joined the Cameron-Clegg coalition as the parliamentary under secretary of state for communities and local government. That same year, Mordaunt made national headlines by taking part in now-defunct reality TV series Splash!, starring Tom Daley. She later said that her appearance raised money for projects in her constituency.

Mordaunt subsequently held various roles in government including under secretary of state for the armed forces, minister of state for disabled people, health and work, and secretary of state for international development.

In 2017, at the height of the Yemeni civil war, Mordaunt was “instrumental” in encouraging the Saudis to keep the port of Hodeidah open, said The Sunday Times. “Widely regarded as a determined operator”, Mordaunt was praised for her negotiating savvy following a meeting with the Saudis. A source at the British embassy in Riyadh told the paper that her performance “was the most impressive they had ever seen from a British government minister”.

For the following two years, Mordaunt was the minister for women and equalities, and was outspoken about abortion laws in Northern Ireland that she described as “the most appalling thing”.

In 2019, following the sacking of Gavin Williamson, she became the UK’s first female defence secretary. “It is a post that seems more suited to her background than her previous job as international development secretary,” The Guardian said at the time.

After just 85 days, however, she was “unceremoniously returned to the backbenches” for “the crime of backing the wrong horse in the leadership contest”, said PoliticsHome, referring to her decision to support Jeremy Hunt over Johnson.

Mordaunt was appointed minister for trade policy in September last year. She also continues to be a Royal Navy reservist, lately promoted to honorary captain.

Chances for leadership

Mordaunt is a passionate Brexiteer and was one of the leading faces of the Vote Leave campaign. One senior Conservative MP and ex-minister said this means she can “appeal to the staunchly pro-Leave wing of the party” as well as attracting the “self-styled moderates in the One Nation and Tory Reform Group caucuses”, reported PoliticsHome.

But Oliver Duff at the i news site warned that “the Tory Squid Game” is “about to get even more ruthless”. After “surging into second place”, Mordaunt can expect “days of hostile briefings” as Truss and Sunak supporters try to “topple her campaign”.

Lord Frost, the former Brexit negotiator, has already told Talk TV he would have “grave reservations” about Mordaunt winning the race. He claimed she “wasn’t fully accountable or always visible” when she served as his junior as the UK left the EU.

Her new status as a feasible contender is certainly “bringing intense scrutiny”, said the Daily Mail. She is facing questions on issues such as “whether she had changed her ‘woke’ views on trans rights in order to win support”.

One former permanent secretary also said: “I doubt you’ll find a single civil servant who’s worked closely with her who thinks she is prime ministerial material.”

The comment came after Mordaunt described Whitehall as “broken”, said the Financial Times, adding that her team “strongly dispute” the former mandarin’s claims.

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