Katy Balls

Can Penny Mordaunt win it?

She's emerging as the dark horse in the Tory leadership race

Can Penny Mordaunt win it?
Penny Mordaunt (Credit: Getty images)
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Is Penny Mordaunt the dark horse in the Tory leadership race? After topping a Conservative Home poll of Tory MPs, Mordaunt is certainly viewed as a dangerous candidate by her leadership rivals. This morning she held her official campaign launch in a sweaty, crowded room in Westminster's Cinnamon Club. The former defence secretary struck a patriotic tone as she recalled the Royal Navy's fleet leaving Portsmouth for the Falklands in 1982. Mordaunt said it made her realise the UK is a nation that ‘stands up to bullies’.

Mordaunt suggested she would lead a return to traditional conservative values. Comparing the Tory party to Paul McCartney’s Glastonbury set, she said that while everyone was happy to nod along to his new material, what people really wanted was to hear the classic Beatles hits. Mordaunt said it was the same when it came to Tory values: 'We liked hearing those new tunes but we really wanted to hear the old favourites.'

In terms of policy pledges, Mordaunt declared that 'Whitehall is broken' and claimed she would fix it. She vowed to run a 'tight cabinet' and said one of her key priorities would be staving off a recession. However, she offered little in the way of detail as to how she would actually achieve these big tasks. 

In the Q&A, she was asked about wokery. This is viewed by rivals as one of her weak spots given her past comments on trans rights – and insistence that 'transwomen are women' – put her at odds with other candidates such as Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman. Mordaunt suggested her priority would be tackling the cost of living crisis rather than dealing with wedge issues, but she did go on to say she believes in biological sex. 'I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said ‘every prime minister must have a Willy'. A woman like me doesn’t have one,' she quipped. 

It was also put to Mordaunt that her insistence that Britain needs a change to Johnson's government (she never served in his cabinet), could mean she needs to secure her own mandate via a general election if she won the contest. Mordaunt argued that the fact she stood for election on the 2019 manifesto was enough.

During the Q&A question, one journalist made the point that several key Brexiteers – members of the European Research Group, for example, such as Mark Francois – are going to Liz Truss, who backed Remain, rather than Mordaunt, who campaigned for Leave. Could this be a problem?

As the contest develops, Mordaunt is viewed by many MPs as fishing in a slightly different pool to Truss, Badenoch and Suella Braverman. While Mordaunt has some Leave backers – like Andrea Leadsom and Tim Loughton – she also has plenty of supporters who voted Remain, such as George Freeman. Mordaunt also has some one nation Tories on board. They argue that Mordaunt is a unifier. This is what makes her so dangerous to the other campaigns.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

Topics in this articlePolitics