Bad Penny

Mordaunt should be more open about her role in the gender wars

Artillery Row

Even a battle-aged jihadi could be forgiven for allowing a tear to roll down his bearded cheek after watching Penny Mordaunt’s campaign video. On Sunday, the prime ministerial hopeful launched a leadership bid with all the patriotic bluster of a Hovis advert.

In a three-minute film, Britain is portrayed as a nation of shopkeepers, farmers and primary school teachers smiling under the benevolent gaze of Tory titans including Churchill and Thatcher. A soothing narrator, with an accent last heard on a 1980s “Protect and Survive” broadcast, tells the Tory faithful, “In this contest there will be a focus on policy and what we will do. But there must be focus on who we are.” Given this it is fair to ask, who exactly is Penny Mordaunt?

“A warrior for the trans lobby”

The implicit message of her campaign is that unlike the feckless, morally-challenged incumbent, the Minister of State for Trade and member for Portsmouth North is an upstanding traditionalist with firm British values. To this end, even before announcing her intention to run, Mordaunt sought to fend off accusations of being on the “woke wing” of the party. 

But until Johnson’s belated announcement of his departure, Mordaunt was widely understood to be an enthusiastically woke trans ally. In her then role as Minister for Women and Equalities, she pushed for reform of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) which would have potentially seen all safeguards removed for those wishing to change their legal gender. 

Writing in 2018 she complained the current law leaves too many “trans and non-binary people” without a “legal recognition of who they are, denying them the dignity and respect that comes with it”. When the users of Mumsnet sought to get answers from Mordaunt about the impact of GRA reform on women, she coolly brushed them off.

Consequently, as soon as there was a whisper of Mordaunt’s candidacy gender critical campaign group Conservatives for Women dubbed her “a warrior for the trans lobby”. In response, Mordaunt complained, “Some want to damage my reputation for whatever reason. They want to depict me as ‘woke’.”

She later tweeted that while she really wanted to get stuck into the meaty issues of “how we get our economy growing again and enable our citizens to live well” she was keen to address the charge that she is unable to define “woman”.

Mordaunt stated, “I am biologically a woman. If I have a hysterectomy or mastectomy, I am still a woman. And I am legally a woman. Some people born male and who have been through the gender recognition process are also legally female. That DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me.” She then listed the triumphs for women she claimed to have achieved in her time as an MP.

In one, Mordaunt said, “It was me that changed maternity legislation that was drafted in gender neutral language (by another) to use female terms. I have also defended free speech on these issues.” 

In fact, she bitterly opposed the amendment

Here, it seems she either shares the “poor memory” of Boris Johnson, or else his whimsical approach to the truth. In fact, she bitterly opposed the amendment. Those who pointed this out include The Critic’s own Christopher Montgomery, who noted, “Everyone who has followed these issues inside government knows that Penny Mordaunt fiercely resisted the absurd ‘pregnant person’ terminology being removed from this bill. And only caved when women in the Lords made her.”

He was supported by Tim Shipman, The Times’s Chief Political Correspondent, who added on Twitter:

Multiple sources tell me Liz Truss, Nadine Dorries and Chloe Smith all fought to get the word mother reinserted into the bill against fierce resistance from Mordaunt, who advocated “pregnant person”. As one Tory put it, She thinks some women have penises

Indeed, Hansard shows that in 2021 Mordaunt begrudgingly accepted the amendments to the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill. The changes were made by peers in what was the first significant push against “gender neutral language” in legislation. After less than subtle criticism, she then took the opportunity to stand at the Dispatch Box and announce “trans men are men and trans women are women.”

Many of Mordaunt’s closest rivals have made political capital from refusing to acquiesce to the demands of the trans lobby; it’s not surprising she might now seek to follow their lead. But as a Conservatives for Women spokeswoman told me:

It’s always tempting for politicians to gloss over the past, but it leaves people none the wiser as to whether they have genuinely changed their minds or it’s just convenient right now to say the right things…These kinds of things do tend to come out.

Having an open mind and being willing to reconsider once strongly held beliefs is unusual in politicians but not necessarily a problem. Had Mordaunt simply stated that she had reconsidered she would have attracted criticism and praise from each side of the ideological divide. But to simply deny her former beliefs shows poor judgement, a lack of respect for would-be voters and a flexible attitude to the truth. It seems Mordaunt has missed the moral message of Johnson’s decline.

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