The clouds have cleared, the fog has lifted, clarity has arrived. The first reaction to finding out Penny Mordaunt was well ahead in the polls and the favourite to win the leadership contest – ‘who again?’ – has passed. But after reading a little of her work, I am now convinced that Penny Mordaunt would make a great leader – of the Labour party. For the Conservatives, she would be a complete disaster.
There is little in Mordaunt’s public record that suggests she is particularly amenable to Conservative views. The core thrust of her book (written with Chris Lewis) is that Britain needs to be ‘modernised’ – a word that to conservatives generally signals ‘made more amenable to Blairites’.
The Houses of Parliament? Why, they’re ‘about as out of touch with a modern democracy as it’s possible to be’. The government should set ‘regional economic growth targets’. The various Orders of the British Empire? Well they should have been abolished long ago: ‘even when we recognise an issue… we are slow to change’. The ‘stuff of which our dreams, history and culture are made’? According to Mordaunt, they include ‘Minority achievement’, as illustrated by the famously British Barack Obama, Boudicca, and Marcus Rashford. And how do you get things done? You ‘need national missions to be codified, like the UN’s Development Goals.’
Intriguingly, Mordaunt’s book lists any number of reasons why British people should be patriotic: ‘pride in the NHS, the countryside, diversity, pubs, the armed forces or the BBC.’ British history is notably absent from this list, as in fact is the presence of culture or institutions not owned or licensed by the state.
This is not a terribly conservative view of the world, which would explain why the book’s introductory pages are filled with praise from Elton John and Tony Blair, and a foreword from Bill Gates. The omission of history as a reason for pride is probably not an accident: the Kenneth Clark series Civilisation is described as explaining ‘how superior Oxford-educated British middle-aged white men were.’ Beloved sitcoms Dad’s Army and Hi-de-Hi! are dismissed as ‘churned out’ programmes, while ‘the legacy of the past’ apparently consists of ‘pub opening times, football racism, casual violence’.
In fact, the big problem facing Britain is that ‘most of our leaders are drawn from a narrow background’, educated in the last century. These leaders are not suited to the challenge of modernising Britain, coming as they did from a ‘heterosexual, white, Christian, Western-orientated’ world, where ‘there was no mansplaining. No white privilege. No colonial historiography’. Many attended universities which ‘teach a Western reductionist model of thinking… they don’t teach empathy, humility, or integrity’. This education explains why Britain has managed to outlaw hate speech for ‘race, religion, and sexual orientation’, but still lacks an ‘offence of stirring up hatred on the grounds of transgender identity’.
This hints at a broader theme: ‘Equalities groups’ like ‘Black Lives Matter’ are singled out for praise, having ‘drawn attention to inequality and injustice’. Young people are ‘the first generation to be able to really see clearly the level of wrongdoing’; in ‘understanding equality’ we find the greatest need for modernisation.
Mordaunt clearly sees herself as being on the right side of history here. In 2018, she told PinkNews that for the upcoming Gender Recognition Act consultation ‘trans women are women, that is the starting point’. In 2019, Mordaunt stood in the Commons chamber and said ‘from this dispatch box that transmen are men, transwomen are women’.
In 2022, these words were used to argue that her views were too socially liberal for the Conservative party. Rather than stand by them, Mordaunt gave a speech containing the phrase ‘I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said every Prime Minister needs a Willie. A woman like me doesn’t have one’.
There is something pretty shoddy in spending your political career advocating for what you believe to be the rights of trans people, and then turning around to make cheap gags the vast majority of your former opponents would consider a little crude. More than that, there is something that feels dishonest about it.
Part of the appeal of Penny is that she is a relatively blank slate. Her leadership video was filled with stock footage and soupy voiceover work, but very little in the way of ‘policies’ or ‘vision’. In turn, this lack of substance suggests that her appeal to voters may not survive contact with reality. As one pollster told me, ‘Rishi Sunak’s experience is illustrative: the public can turn, and turn quickly. We’d expect nothing less from the members of the Conservative party’. If Mordaunt’s book is anything to go by, that could happen sooner than you think.