OPINION - Emily Sheffield: Penny Mordaunt may be making waves, but I’d rather go with what I know

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 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Like many in the last week, I’ve been scrambling around looking for the real Penny Mordaunt. Not the Penny Mordaunt this surprise leading contender wants to present to us, but the woman she may want to hide.

It would be tempting right now to think this naval reservist, who hails from Torquay and lost her mother to cancer when she was 15, is our most likely new Prime Minister, such is the force of momentum behind her this week. The polls put her ahead, the betting odds have her as the clear favourite. As I write this, Mordaunt, is only second behind Rishi Sunak, on 83 MPs to his 101. But the junior minister gained 16 new endorsements in this second round, to his 13. And this weekend, despite never having held a position of high office, except for two years in Cabinet under Theresa May as international development secretary and briefly defence secretary as well, she is likely to be the most impressive in the TV debates, which is vital to keep her momentum going.

Many who know her describe the 49-year-old as being “bold and ballsy”. I certainly find her so. I’ve seen her perform in the Commons — she can attack like a Rottweiler. As the surprise outside runner, she has some serious plus points over her foes. She has a great back story, overcoming a tough start in life. After her mother died, Mordaunt’s father also contracted cancer and she had to become the prime carer for her younger brother. Despite these challenges, she was the first to go to university, where she studied philosophy. She says her political awakening came as a child, when she saw the boats in Portsmouth sail for the Falklands to serve their country.

She is clean, as it were, from any Johnson dirt. She supported Brexit. She is not a mad Right-winger, vainly wishing for a “purist” version of Brexit. She therefore has a chance to win support across the Conservative party. She does have great hair, which combined with her no-nonsense, tough, naval delivery mean she’s telegenic. Finally, her rivals were unprepared for her extraordinary trajectory.

Now they are hitting back. Lord Frost’s stinging attack on her yesterday demonstrated this — unknown also means untested, we do not know much about Mordaunt. This is a strength and a weakness. Frost, who is backing Liz Truss, told TalkTV that while working with the Portsmouth North MP he did not find her reliable: “I’m afraid she wasn’t sort of fully accountable, she wasn’t always visible… sometimes I didn’t even know where she was.” She was his “notional” deputy during Brexit negotiations. Frost’s reservations were so severe, he claims, he asked the Prime Minister to “move her on”, which Johnson duly did.

Another senior Tory who has worked with her echoes Frost’s criticism to me, saying “I did find her a bit flaky.” And Michael Gove has privately echoed this view as well — although, like Frost, he is backing another candidate. Others question whether Mordaunt has the intellectual ability to handle being PM. It was a constant criticism of Boris Johnson that he rarely bothered to get into the detail. I will add that those criticising her are largely men. Women do find it harder to gain a loyal network, as they are constantly outnumbered.

What is key, however, is that Frost’s attack exemplified how quickly Mordaunt could implode. Now or once in Number 10. That will be playing on the minds of MPs and big political beasts. Speaking of those, she needs to persuade far more of them to her side. Sunak has Dominic Raab, Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Jeremy Hunt. She has David Davis and Maria Miller. Rumour has it that she wants her friend Andrea Leadsom as Chancellor. And Truss, although trailing, could easily start picking up MPs and ministers who supported Suella Braverman, with more to come if the impressive Kemi Badenoch fails to get through to the next round.

We have yet to hear how she will deal with the economy, and come September the cost-of-living crisis will be number one in that in-tray. Who will be her key running mates? She won’t have time to form strong working partnerships, in the way David Cameron was able to during his five years in opposition. As Sunak and Truss will have done in their roles.

My other concern is who she has around her personally. There is no sign of a partner or important other. The job of PM is lonely. The batterings you take every day are incalculable. Before I’m criticised for being sexist, I would say this about a male candidate.

I can list pros and cons for the other leading candidates. Be in no doubt: Mordaunt may triumph or fall. This contest is wide open. But I’d rather go with what I know.

We need to focus on fact, not rumour, in this race

There’s no denying the black ops being run in this contest. Rumours — unfounded and unprintable — are being spread about Liz Truss’s personal life on WhatsApp, for instance. It’s not hard to spot the attacks on Penny Mordaunt. But it is our job to keep to the facts. Mordaunt has clearly suggested one radical change that does need looking at: that of MPs’ development funds.

Mordaunt suggests MPs could be given “social capital funding” to deploy directly in their area. Sounds like sensible devolution? Yes, until you realise it is handing direct financial responsibility to MPs to hand out taxpayer cash.

There are already many methods to devolve power to local areas, through councils and special projects that are costed and have proper financial oversight.

Giving cash to MPs is not a good idea. It could be wide open to abuse and MPs may use it to leverage their own popularity. Let’s not forget the expenses scandal either.

Ivana Trump was a truly fierce spirit

Ivana Trump has died, after falling down the stairs in her New York apartment, it was announced yesterday. She once said in an interview: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”

I had grudging respect for Donald Trump’s first wife. She was never actually just arm candy to her husband, she ran lots of elements of his business, had three children. And when he ran off with Marla Maples, Ivana took him to the cleaners financially, becoming a pin up to many American women fighting their cheating husbands. She was adored by her kids and in the end still by Trump. Her ending doesn’t fit the way she led her life.

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