Jockeying for the Tory leadership has resumed. On Monday the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, delivered a speech to the National Conservatism Conference which was widely seen as her leadership bid, while last week the Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, infuriated Brexiteers by ditching the deadline for scrapping EU laws.
Meanwhile, thanks to the superlative way in which she carried out her duties at the Coronation, the star of the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, is once more in the ascendant.
According to Charles Moore, writing in The Spectator,
“After Penny Mordaunt’s magnificent performance with the Jewelled Sword…it seems clear that she is the only conceivable challenger for the Tory leadership before the next general election. There is something about a handsome woman on the warpath which excites the fealty of traditional Tory supporters, particularly men. Under the power of this atavism, Conservative backbenchers backed Margaret Thatcher against Ted Heath for the leadership in 1975. A similar phenomenon was observable when Joanna Lumley uttered the warcry ‘Ayo Gorkhali!’ on the steps of Parliament.”
The Coronation offered Mordaunt the chance to impress a huge public, and she seized it with both hands, being hailed as one of the stars of the show, with people marvelling at her commanding manner, specially designed dress, and ability to sustain for almost an hour the weight of the Sword of State, though this was actually borne mainly by the gold and purple sling round her neck.
At the Despatch Box, where as Leader of the House she each Thursday takes Business Questions, her air of command is equally apparent, and she raises Conservative spirits by pouring scorn on the Opposition.
She has also in recent weeks won support from Brexiteers who praise her, as one of them puts it, for being
“very keen to ensure the Retained EU Law Bill was carried out properly. She is one of the standard bearers in the Cabinet for proper Brexit.”
Donna Jones – a Conservative who has known Mordaunt for “years and years”, went to the same junior school in Portsmouth, ran her campaign in Portsmouth North, stood herself in Portsmouth South, and is now Police and Crime Commissioner for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – says with delight that Mordaunt has become, since the Coronation, the “darling of the nation”, and has “put Portsmouth on the map for all the right reasons” by “leading from the front”.
But there are less charitable ways of looking at Mordaunt. In part perhaps because she is so popular with the rank and file, so is regarded as such a threat in any future leadership contest, she arouses in some quarters an extraordinary degree of vituperation.
A parliamentary contemporary who has observed her at close quarters for a long time told ConHome:
“Some politicians embark on or pretend to vacuity as a technique. David Cameron did that sometimes. But with Mordaunt it’s not a matter of choice. She’s genuinely vacuous. But she is really good at standing still and holding a sword. And it was a great outfit by the way.”
Her critics claim that Mordaunt, with the long-term help of Chris Lewis, a successful PR man and self-help guru, has for years set out to offer herself as an attractive leadership contender, a blend of tradition and modernity, onto whom anxious Conservatives can project their hopes for the future.
She has done this, they observe, without providing any clear indication of what, were she ever to be installed in 10 Downing Street, she would actually do.
According to another Commons contemporary who has seen her in action as a minister,
“She is quite difficult to get close to or to get to know: very ‘hail fellow well met’, but not very clubbable. She’s not unique in that, and it may even be necessary in a leader, in order to manage the different factions in the party.
“But she’s not collegiate. She behaves as if she’s collegiate, but actually she ploughs her own furrow. She’s clearly very capable. She masters her brief, has her own ideas, doesn’t just do what the civil servants tell her.”
“She’s a very slick campaigner,” a third Tory at Westminster who has seen a lot of her said. “In that respect she clearly does the party a lot of good. My worry is that she is hopeless on anything to do with the economy.”
As MP since 2010 for Portsmouth North, and candidate there at the general election of 2005, it is fitting that Mordaunt should make constant references to the Royal Navy, in which she served as a reservist.
She is named, as noted in the first ConHome profile of her, after HMS Penelope, and as recounted in that piece, in the summer of 2015 held a party which was identified by at least one guest as “Penny’s leadership bid”.
It turned out to be too soon for her to stand in 2016, a contest won by Theresa May after Boris Johnson dropped out.
As the 2019 leadership contest got under way, Mordaunt wrote a piece for ConHome in which she declared:
“To unlock our nation’s potential requires a different kind of leadership. Britain needs some humility from its leaders, not just from the candidates in this contest, but from us all. We should trust the people with more than just Brexit. It’s time for some servant leadership.”
But again it was too soon for any noticeable demand for Mordaunt’s services: Johnson came through a crowded field and won.
With the fall of Johnson, announced by him on the morning of Thursday 7th July 2022, it looked as if Mordaunt’s moment might have come, The Times reporting on 13th July:
“Penny Mordaunt emerged today as a frontrunner in the Conservative leadership race as she won the backing of nearly 70 MPs and a poll suggested that she would beat Rishi Sunak in the final run-off.
“The former Defence Secretary surged ahead of Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, in the first round of voting and came second only to Sunak in the ballot of MPs despite being considered a relative outlier before the contest began.
“MPs backed Mordaunt after a YouGov survey of Tory members indicated that she held a huge lead over every other candidate with the party’s grassroots. In a head-to-head with Sunak she would win by 67 per cent to 28, according to the poll.”
The following day, George Freeman, who on 7th July had resigned as Science Minister in protest against Boris Johnson’s leadership, hailed her on Politics Home as the leader the party now required:
“From her phenomenal back story, to her service in our armed forces and pioneering work as International Development Secretary and the first female Defence Secretary. Showing how patriotism is forward-looking and how strong defence and security goes hand in hand with compassion to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Brexiteer and social justice campaigner, patriot and pioneer – Penny has demonstrated leadership on the world stage at the very highest levels of government.
“Fundamentally, she’s both a pragmatist and an optimist and recognises that if our country has a fault then it’s concentrating on the negative. We need a fresh start based on freedom, fairness, courage and compassion and taking personal responsibility…
“She is the standout candidate who can heal the wounds of the last few years and get our party back to united and winning ways and make Brexit the inspiring moment of renewal people voted for. That is why Penny Mordaunt must be our next Prime Minister.”
But the days after a candidate becomes the front runner are a time of maximum danger, for as Johnson found in 2016, your rivals will now look for any way to destroy you.
Lord Frost accused her of having been a useless minister, and said he would not serve under her.
More damagingly, Mordaunt was accused of being too “woke” to lead the party. While serving in 2018 as Women and Equalities Minister she had expressed her staunch support for trans rights, “trans men are men and trans women are women”, which (as noted in the second profile of her on ConHome, published in 2021) was far in advance of Government policy.
From this position, which has since become less fashionable and recently caused Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government grave difficulties, Mordaunt declined to resile.
This played into a more general sense that she was not really a conservative at all. In 2021, she and Chris Lewis published Greater: Britain After The Storm, a work of 378 pages which was described by one of my colleagues in the Commons Press Gallery as
“a ratatouille of centrist mush. What the hell is she for, other than Penny Mordaunt? She used to be a magician’s assistant, but you saw her in half and you’re not sure which half to throw away.”
Most campaign books published by politicians are unreadable, but Greater, puffed in the first few pages by various famous people who cannot have read it from start to finish, is a particularly dismal example of the genre.
Lewis is a specialist in self-help guff, given to saying such things as:
“I always try to find what I call servant leaders, and a servant leader has four Hs…that they’re Happy, that they’re Honest, that they’re Hard-Working, and above all else that they’re Humble.”
We have come across servant leadership in Mordaunt’s 2019 piece, quoted above, for ConHome. Who could object to it? Sandhurst’s motto is “Serve to Lead”. But at book length, such pieties, unless handled with astonishing skill, are liable to become intolerable.
Greater also turned out to contain all sorts of distinctly unconservative opinions, such as scorn for the past, including the television comedies of David Croft and Jimmy Perry.
Mordaunt was accused, fatally, of being an enemy of Dad’s Army, which wasn’t quite right, as she and Lewis really went for It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, condemned by them for
“casual racism, homophobia, white privilege, colonialism, transphobia, bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment.”
Culture wars can make the difference in a leadership campaign. But for her outspoken social liberalism, notably her pro-trans position, Mordaunt might have maintained her early lead over Truss in the leadership race of July to September 2022, and would also have been in a strong position to challenge Sunak in the contest of October 2022, which he won unopposed after she failed to get 100 MPs to nominate her, with even Freeman urging her to row in behind Sunak.
There is just now no vacancy at the top of the Conservative Party, but there is a famous sword-bearer who is ready, like various other contenders, to promise us a better future when the moment comes.