Penny Mordaunt: Outside bet casting a spell on Tory MPs

A former magician’s assistant, Penny Mordaunt had appeared to be casting a spell over many Tory MPs, but a fresh focus on her political record has threatened to unsettle her bid to replace Boris Johnson.

Long before the implosion of the Johnson premiership, 49-year-old Ms Mordaunt had been tipped as a potential leadership challenger.

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, and less high-profile, roles.

Her entry into the Tory leadership contest triggered some early excitement, as Tory MPs rallied behind a fresh face to replace the Prime Minister and lead the Conservatives.

But that dearth of ministerial experience has become a weakness her rivals have sought to exploit, even if she appears to remain a popular choice among party members.

Those attacks have stepped up after an insurgent campaign saw her garner greater support than Foreign Secretary Liz Truss among Tory MPs, polling behind only former chancellor Rishi Sunak in the early ballots.

Conservative leadership bid
Penny Mordaunt at the launch of her campaign (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

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 Ms Mordaunt 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 to the Portsmouth North constituency in 2010, one of her first claims to fame was an appearance on reality TV diving show Splash in 2014.

She also raised eyebrows in 2013, for 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 has come back to haunt her during her leadership campaign, but Ms Mordaunt has doubled-down.

Defending that claim recently, she said: “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 is not the only part of her record that has 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, notably right-winger Kemi Badenoch and some allies of Ms Truss.

Conservative leadership bid
Penny Mordaunt before the live television debate hosted by Channel 4 (Victoria Jones/PA)

One of those Truss backers, former Brexit Minister Lord Frost, has also gone 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, Ms Mordaunt has suggested that those attacks are attempts to block her from reaching the ballot of party members – where she says her unimpeachable popularity with party members will see her through to Downing Street regardless of whom she faces in the final two.

Yet for all her confidence, some observers suggested that Ms Mordaunt came unstuck slightly in the televised debates as she faced attacks from Mr Sunak for proposals on tax and on changing the UK’s approach to fiscal borrowing.

Now, as the competition heats up, Ms Mordaunt will need to prevent her leadership bid becoming a disappearing act.