Long before she sought to replace Boris Johnson, let alone his successor, Penny Mordaunt had been tipped as a potential challenger for the Tory crown.
21 October 2022
A former magician’s assistant, Penny Mordaunt is now seeking a leading role on the national stage for a second time, after the crumbling of the Truss administration.
Long before she made a bid to replace Boris Johnson, let alone his successor, 49-year-old Ms Mordaunt had been tipped as a potential challenger for the Tory crown.
A Navy reservist, she became the first woman to serve as Defence Secretary. But her time there was destined to be short, and under Mr Johnson she was reshuffled into more junior, less high-profile roles.
That all changed after she lost out to Liz Truss in the parliamentary stage of the race to replace Mr Johnson in the summer, finishing third behind the now-outgoing PM and former chancellor Rishi Sunak before the vote went to party members.
She opted to back Ms Truss, and was rewarded with a role in the new Cabinet, taking up the reins as Commons Leader.
Her initial bid for the top job triggered some excitement, as colleagues rallied behind a fresh face to lead the Conservatives.
But her dearth of ministerial experience at that stage became a weakness that her rivals sought to exploit, even if she appeared to remain a popular choice among the party membership.
She will now be able to cite her tenure as Commons Leader – albeit short-lived – as she sets her sights on Downing Street once more.
Ms Mordaunt will inevitably be tied to the Truss premiership to some extent, as she served in the Cabinet during the PM’s tumultuous premiership, which saw market chaos at one stage threaten to trigger a financial crisis in the UK.
However she has hardly been conspicuous in her loyalty, making it clear she believed benefits should rise in line with inflation at the Tory conference earlier this month, despite Ms Truss repeatedly refusing to guarantee the boost.
She also raised eyebrows with her choice of words while answering an urgent question on Ms Truss’s behalf just days prior to her downfall, as she insisted to MPs that “the Prime Minister is not under a desk” dodging scrutiny and denied there had been a “coup” to remove her.
Born in Torquay in Devon, Ms Mordaunt is the daughter of a paratrooper and a special needs teacher.
Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 15 while her father was diagnosed with cancer when she was a teenager.
A University of Reading graduate, she worked on George W Bush’s presidential campaigns and was a Conservative party staffer during William Hague’s leadership.
Elected in the Portsmouth North constituency in 2010, one of her first claims to fame was an appearance on reality TV diving show Splash in 2014.
In 2013, she gave a House of Commons speech in which she squeezed in repeated references to a rude word in a speech about poultry welfare – said to be part of a bet.
An ardent Leaver, during the 2016 EU referendum campaign she faced accusations of untruths after claiming that the UK would not be able to stop Turkey joining the EU.
That claim came back to haunt her during the campaign to replace Mr Johnson, but she doubled down, saying: “There is a provision for a veto but we could not have used it because David Cameron gave an undertaking that he would support their accession and having given that undertaking to a Nato country, he would not have been able to walk away.”
It was not the only part of her record that faced scrutiny, with some Tory MPs accusing Ms Mordaunt of being “too woke” on issues of trans rights and self-identification.
Deploying a decades-old line from Margaret Thatcher (“every prime minister needs a Willie”) to fend off some of those questions prompted a few laughs but little respite from opponents.
Former Brexit minister Lord Frost, who backed Ms Truss over the summer, went as far as to label Ms Mordaunt as “absent on parade” when he worked with her on post-Brexit negotiations last year.
For her own part, she suggested those attacks were attempts to block her from reaching the ballot of party members – and that in the run-off for the second leg of the contest her unimpeachable popularity would see her through to Downing Street regardless of whom she might face in the final two.
Yet for all her confidence, she was unsuccessful in the first time round.
Ms Mordaunt will be hoping to work her magic to make it second time lucky as she enters the fray once again.