Britain’s next PM could be Penny Mordaunt – POLITICO


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LONDON — The surprise favorite to replace Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister is named after a legendary World War II battleship — the HMS Penelopeshot down by a German U-boat after numerous close shaves.

But those who worked with Penny Mordaunt in Whitehall compare her instead to a namesake figurine she used to carry around from department to department throughout her ministerial career – relatively inconspicuous.

Mordaunt was known for displaying in her ministerial offices a large model of the 1960s puppet Lady Penelope, a character from the cult British children’s television series Thunderbirds. Lady Penelope was a London-based secret agent famous for her chic outfits and her pink Rolls Royce – fitted with machine guns and bulletproof glass.

The doll was a gift from British Marines when Mordaunt became Armed Forces Minister in 2015, partly as a sign of respect for her own military past.

“She has a bit of Lady Penelope about her,” said a current colleague. “She’s glamorous, but she’s serious – and might have weapons hidden in the car.”

Mordaunt has certainly shown her more well-known Tory rivals that she means business in recent days.



Prior to this week, she was best known for donning a bathing suit in 2014 and painfully missing a dip on the reality TV show “Splash!”, and for a notorious two-way talk she spoke in parliament after losing a bet with his navy buddies. She is also the only sitting MP known to have worked as a magician’s assistant, albeit in the distant past.

But Mordaunt became a household name overnight after supportive colleagues and admiring Tory members put rocket boosters under his outside bid to replace Johnson in Downing Street.

She is currently in second place behind former Chancellor Rishi Sunak after two rounds of voting among Tory MPs, who are tasked with narrowing the candidates to the bottom two before a vote by party members. And she would comfortably beat each of her likely opponents in this final head-to-head poll, according to a series of polls.

“It could be a motivation,” said the former minister. “If in her makeup there’s a ‘you give a fuck about me, then I’m going to show what I’m made of’ attitude, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

A former minister who worked with Mordaunt has argued that Johnson may have unwittingly put her on the right track to succeed him when he abruptly sacked her as defense secretary in a ‘vengeful’ act during of taking office in 2019. Former Johnson aides insist she was simply not highly rated. enough by the new regime to retain a high profile role – although most in Westminster assume the former Prime Minister dumped her for backing his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt.

He added: “There’s great drive and determination in her, and people miss that at their peril.”

The political battlefield

It’s true that Mordaunt has spent his life in politics fighting for causes close to his heart – and winning.

Her reality TV appearance raised enough money to save his local lido the closure in the south coast city of Portsmouth; she pulled the strings to help to register Portsmouth Football Club out of business; and she publicly harangued Whitehall officials to cancel a local electricity project – which, indeed, was eventually cancelled.

“She was filing letters and petitions with the department while the project was in the planning stages,” said an official with the department of business, energy and industrial strategy. “I don’t know how she fared as a minister.”

Mordaunt also fought in the Vote Leave Brexit campaign, which won in 2016 with Johnson at its helm.

Subsequently, it was Mordaunt, not Johnson, who stood up in Cabinet and fought hardest to block a deal that would have left the UK in the EU customs union, according to his supporter and former Brexit negotiator, David Davis.

“At the Checkers meeting, she was the most effective and clinical in getting a result,” Davis said, recalling the 2018 summit at the Prime Minister’s campaign residence where Theresa May unsuccessfully tried to sell. his contract to his best team.

When he and Johnson later resigned from the Checkers plan, Davis claims he thought Mordaunt was so effective that she should stay on. “I told him, ‘Don’t quit,'” he said. “We need people like you to fight the corner on the inside.”

‘Sleeping Penny’

But Mordaunt has yet to be tested – or even properly reviewed – at the highest level, and it’s clear that not all of his past or present colleagues rate him highly.

Some in the Department of International Trade, where she is now a junior minister, say she is shirking her responsibilities, focusing only on a limited number of issues that interest her and hiding in her parliamentary offices to chart her course to the leadership.

An official was keen to point out that new publications detailing ministerial trips abroad show that Mordaunt did not make a single trip abroad in the first quarter of 2022, despite his trade-focused memoir. She earned the nickname “Sleeping Penny” among the ungenerous members of her team.

Strikingly, her boss, International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, backs a rival, Tom Tugendhat, for the Conservative leadership, while another trade minister, Ranil Jayawardena, backs Liz Truss. It seems none of her closest colleagues think she is up to the job of prime minister.

Britain's next PM could be Penny Mordaunt - POLITICO
It seems none of her closest colleagues think she is up to the job of Prime Minister | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

A former boss of another department, David Frost, who was a close adviser to Johnson and wields outsized influence in conservative circles, lashed out at Mordaunt this week. on live tv. He complained that she was not “fully in charge or always visible” within their department; was seldom through the detail of his record; and even questioned his commitment to the cause of Brexit.

Others disagree that Mordaunt is a trickster. A Whitehall civil servant who worked alongside her in the Cabinet Office said being invisible did not mean she was not doing her job well.

“She would do all the work in her ministerial box and do what she needed,” the person said. “But she was demoted from a cabinet minister to random junior roles. It’s no surprise she wasn’t motivated to do a lot of gossiping and defending Downing Street in the media.

A closed book

Mordaunt’s rocky leadership launch stood in stark contrast to the shrewd campaigns launched by clearly prepared rivals such as Sunak.

His start the video was somewhat lackluster and required editing of controversial footage following complaints immediately after its release. She didn’t have a press spokesperson in place several days after Johnson’s departure and is still building a real campaign team.

His campaign is now chaired by another former Vote Leave ally, Andrea Leadsom, who ran for the helm in 2016 and is now being singled out by some as Mordaunt’s choice for chancellor.

One thing Mordaunt does not lack is a blueprint for the challenges facing post-Brexit Britain. She co-wrote a book with Chris Lewis (an adviser who dubs himself “the Great Enchilada”) titled “Greater: Britain After the Storm.” The couple reportedly arrived by helicopter to promote the book at a summer literature festival.

Their work has received praise from a surprising cast of characters, including former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, singer Elton John, screenwriter Richard Curtis and businessman Richard Branson.

But if Mordaunt becomes Prime Minister, she will need more than a book to introduce herself to the public. A poll this week showed just 20% of Britons knew who she was – slightly more than the 12% of people who claimed to know a fake MP the pollster had invented as a test case.

For Tory MPs debating whether to put her on the final ballot, the question is less who she is than what she stands for.

“No one knows Penny well,” said a high-profile MP who was still considering who to support. “Nobody knows What She is. She is a closed book.




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