Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Less is Mordaunt

A miserably unsuitable candidate

Artillery Row

When I want to make my children groan, I tell them my father’s favourite joke. There are two eggs in a pan of boiling water. One egg says to the other: “Bloody hell, it’s hot in here.” The other replies: “You think this is bad? When you get out, they smash your skull.”

You might think Liz Truss’s premiership is as bad as it can get. If that’s the case, I have two words for you: Penny Mordaunt.

It might seem astonishing that there are reportedly serious moves to remove Liz Truss from No 10 after less than 50 days. Astonishing — but entirely understandable. What is, however, astonishing but not in the least bit understandable is that one of her mooted successors, around whom it is being said Conservative MPs should unite, is Penny Mordaunt.

Ms Mordaunt has a plausible demeanour. Her manner is that of an ex-naval officer — brisk and to the point. She can be humorous. She is no Truss-like robot. This has taken her far — to the Cabinet and to being touted as a possible (probable?) PM.

All of which goes to show the paucity of political scrutiny in Britain and the superficiality of so much commentary. Because Ms Mordaunt has nothing to commend her beyond her manner. Quite the opposite: some of her more fundamental views are horrifying, and the ease with which she adapts them in public for her own convenience is deeply troubling.

As a trade minister, her nickname was said to be Penny Dormant, so unwilling was she to put in the hard graft necessary in such a role. Colleagues describe her as being interested only in one thing: herself. Hardly unusual for a politician, you might say. There is a certain code among ministers, however, who understand the need to do the hours and get through the red boxes. Ms Mordaunt, on the other hand, is reported to have point blank refused to go on an important US trade trip because she had arranged her own book tour for the same time.

Ms Mordaunt plays on her naval role as an honorary captain. She appears to be happy to allow supporters to big this up — during the leadership campaign, for example, one MP said she had “fought in the navy”. She did not correct him. Unless she had fisticuffs on a naval base, this was simply wrong; she has neither fought nor even been deployed, as a reservist. Nor should she have been: she is not a trained reservist and has never been commissioned. Yet in her opening leadership speech she said that “perhaps better than any other candidate”, she grasped the need to support the armed services. As opposed to Afghanistan and Iraq veteran Tom Tugendhat?

Colleagues have despaired at her inability to grasp fundamental details

In May 2019 she was appointed Defence Secretary, which she claimed was her dream job. Three months later she was sacked when Boris Johnson became PM. It was claimed this was a political sacking because she was not an ally. That may well have been true. In her brief time in the role, it was reported that military colleagues regarded her as totally out of her depth, however. In a piece on Mordaunt, Dominic Lawson recalled “a very senior soldier who had worked for several defence secretaries saying that, of all those he had dealt with, Mordaunt … was the worst. When asked the reason, he was blunt: ‘Couldn’t take a decision.’”

This theme has been repeated in every ministerial role she has held, where colleagues have despaired at her inability to grasp fundamental details or to understand her brief properly. As her former ministerial boss Lord Frost said during the leadership contest: “To be honest, I’m quite surprised she is where she is in this race. She was my deputy — notionally more than really — in the Brexit talks last year. I’m sorry to say this, but I felt she did not master the detail … she wasn’t fully accountable. She wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was.”

Her ignorance about fundamental facts of political life is astonishing (I give her the credit of assuming she has not simply been blatantly lying). The first time she entered public consciousness was during the Brexit referendum, when she insisted in an interview that under EU rules Britain would not be able to veto Turkish membership. Her interviewer replied: “The British government does have a veto”, to which she said, “No, it doesn’t.” The interviewer came back: “I thought accession is something each country could veto if it wanted to.” She replied, “No.” This was of course pure nonsense.

Or take an article she wrote celebrating the Platinum Jubilee, in which she told us: “Her Majesty stuck by the country, no matter that at one stage it meant working with a government that wanted to abolish her and the monarchy.” Again, pure nonsense. No British government has ever sought, or even wanted, to abolish the monarchy.

Worst of all, given our current economic circumstances, was her reference in her leadership campaign speech to what “my monetary policy” would be, appearing to be wholly unaware of the role of the Bank of England. 

Given we are in the middle of a crisis brought about by a budget that doesn’t add up, one of her campaign interviews needs to be looked at. The Daily Telegraph asked a simple question about the two tax cuts she was promising, halving VAT on fuel and raising personal tax thresholds by inflation: How much will it cost? Unable to provide an answer, she said an aide would “provide [the amount] later”.

All this should be enough to ensure she is never given ministerial office, let alone become prime minister. There are two further issues of a different level of magnitude which make the idea that anyone is seriously floating the idea of her as PM deeply shocking.

Last February, whilst serving in the Cabinet Office, she tweeted:

Great to have met with @ZaraMO1 today, to wish her every success and hear more about her plans. Look forward to working with her and her team.

This was a reference to the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Yet it is — quite rightly — government policy to refuse all official contacts with MCB, since its former deputy director-general signed the Istanbul Declaration, which demanded that Muslims attack navies which sought to stop weapons being smuggled to Hamas (labelled a terrorist organisation by the British government). Such navies included the Royal Navy. The MCB would only say it had been signed by its deputy director general in “a personal capacity”. The MCB maintains this stance, which is one reason the government refuses to engage with it. According to Dominic Lawson: “No 10 asked Mordaunt to take her tweet down. She refused — even after Downing Street reminded her that our embargo stemmed from a threat to the Royal Navy.” So much for her unique understanding of the need to support the armed services.

She simply pretended that her past record did not exist

Should Ms Mordaunt’s political career rise to further heights, the fact-checking industry will have guaranteed employment. On one issue in particular — gender recognition — her accounts of her own behaviour vary from the misleading to the downright false.

Ms Mordaunt was Minister for Women and Equalities between April 2018 and July 2019. No other holder of that post has been as committed or unambiguous an advocate of the idea of self-ID, that self-declared trans women fully entitled to be treated as biological women with the weight of the law behind them. She described the Gender Recognition Act as “overly bureaucratic… highly medicalised”, and said in the House of Commons that the foundation of the reforms she would enact was indeed that “trans women are women”. She was so committed to the cause of self-ID that she was given the politician of the year award in 2019 by Pink News.

Scientifically ignorant — indeed, dangerous — as her view may be, a politician with a deeply held principle is surely commendable. The moment the leadership campaign began, however, Ms Mordaunt started to dissemble, wise to the fact that her obsession with allowing biological men to be classified as women should they so wish would not help her chances of winning. Rather offering an (admittedly very weak) “I’ve changed my mind”, she simply pretended that her past record did not exist. She insisted she had never, at any point, agreed with self-ID. This came as news to those like Liz Truss who worked with her at the time, or those like Kemi Bademoch who succeeded her, all of whom remember her as a zealot in the cause.

With a straight face, she has since claimed that when she said in the Commons that, “Trans men are men; trans women are women”, she didn’t mean ALL of them, only that “in law, some are”.

Objectively, it is astonishing that Ms Mordaunt has remained a candidate for high office, despite her record showing that she is lacking in even the basic attributes for success. In politics the superficial has often outdone the substantial. With Liz Truss surely doomed, there appears to be every chance that Conservative MPs may turn to the superficial demeanour of Penny Mordaunt. As the egg joke has it … 

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