Penny Mordaunt speaks at an event to launch her campaign to be the next Conservative leader and prime minister. (Photo: Henry Nicholls via Reuters)
Rishi Sunaktopped the ballot in the the first round of voting by Tory MPs in the race to succeed Boris Johnson. But it was Mordaunt, a trade minister, finishing in second place that caused a buzz in Westminster.
No-one can quite say what “momentum” is, or whether it actually makes any difference whatsoever. But whatever momentum (aka “the big mo”) is, Mordaunt seems to have a lot of it.
Momentum is growing for Penny Mordaunt. Lots of MPs saying that to me and WhatsApp Group set up to pull together volunteers now has 500 plus on it, apparently.
— Anushka Asthana (@AnushkaAsthana) July 13, 2022
Sunak still the man to beat but Mordaunt momentum will concern him… https://t.co/c1oLpYX9Mt
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) July 13, 2022
Who is she?
Mordaunt, 49, campaigned for Brexit and was the first woman to serve as defence secretary, although Johnson sacked her shortly after he became prime minister in 2019 because she had backed another candidate for party leader, Jeremy Hunt. She also held the international development brief in cabinet, and is currently a junior trade minister.
The MP for Portsmouth North since 2010, Mordaunt’s career before politics was largely in public relations. The colourful aspects of her background include a stint as magician’s assistant while at college, serving as a Royal Navy reservist and appearing on the Tom Daley-fronted diving show, Splash.
She is seen as a safe bet, or a compromise candidate that marries Brexiteer bona fides with the kind of socially liberal views that were ushered in by David Cameron as leader, having spoken at a pro-Leave LGBT event during the referendum.
Why excitement now?
While never a rank outsider, Mordaunt has been put in the second-tier of leadership hopefuls because of better name recognition among other candidates. But what might have started as a curse may turn into a blessing if the likes of one-time chancellor Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss are tarnished by their association with the Johnson era.
And a poll on Wednesday, perhaps pointing to the desire for a fresh break from the recent part, caused an earth tremor among political journalists.
BREAKING YouGov Conservative members poll which will electrify the leadership election
Penny Mordaunt beats EVERY candidate in a run off by at least 18 points
Sunak loses to everyone except Zahawi/Braverman/Hunt
Truss beats Sunak by 24 https://t.co/XU1eV4mg7Spic.twitter.com/O1OpWKCfZN
— Henry Zeffman (@hzeffman) July 13, 2022
Let’s remember, once MPs have whittled the field down to two candidates, it’s up to between 100,000 and 200,000 party members to choose the winner. And the YouGov survey showed Mordaunt is now the clear favourite for leader among these Conservative members.
Some 27% responded that they would favour Mordaunt as Johnson’s replacement, with former minister Kemi Badenoch second on 15%, and Sunak and Truss tied on 13%. Perhaps more significant was how she would beat every rival – comfortably – in head-to-heads.
The poll’s revelations – which came after her campaign’s launch event – were followed by the second place in the ballot and a handy advantage over Truss, who was seen as a candidate more likely to unite the party’s factions.
Backroom negotiations will now take place before the next round of voting, and any number of pacts and promises could yet deny Mordaunt a spot in the final two. Her higher profile will also bring much more scrutiny than she has experienced before.
But once they’ve finished telling you about “momentum”, commentators will doubtless recall how David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith were also not supposed to win the Tory leadership. In other words, all to play for.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.