Penny Mordaunt: Outside bet casts a spell over Tory MPs

Former magician’s assistant Penny Mordaunt had appeared to cast a spell over many Tory MPs, but a new emphasis on her political record threatened to disrupt her bid to replace Boris Johnson.

Long before the implosion of Prime Minister Johnson’s post, Ms Mordaunt, 49, had been singled out as a potential leadership contender.

A Navy reservist, she became the first woman to serve as Secretary of Defense. But her time there was destined to be short and under Mr Johnson she was reshuffled into more junior and less high profile roles.

His entry into the Tory leadership race sparked some excitement at first, as Tory MPs rallied behind a new face to replace the prime minister and lead the Tories.

But that lack of ministerial experience has become a weakness her rivals have sought to exploit, though she appears to remain a popular choice among party members.

Those attacks intensified after an insurgent campaign saw her garner greater support than Foreign Secretary Liz Truss among Tory MPs, probing behind only former Chancellor Rishi Sunak in early polls.

Penny Mordaunt at her campaign launch (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Born in Torquay in Devon, Ms Mordaunt is the daughter of a parachutist and a special education teacher.

Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 15, while her father was diagnosed with cancer when Ms Mordaunt was a teenager.

A graduate of the University of Reading, she worked on Presidential campaigns for George W Bush and was a Conservative Party staffer under William Hague.

Elected in the constituency of Portsmouth North in 2010, one of her first claims to fame was an appearance on the reality show Splash in 2014.

She also raised her eyebrows in 2013, for the House of Commons speech in which she repeatedly referenced a swear word in a speech on poultry welfare – believed to have been part of a bet .

A fiery outgoing, during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, she was accused of untruth after claiming the UK would not be able to stop Turkey from joining the EU.

That claim came back to haunt her during her leadership campaign, but Ms Mordaunt doubled down.

Defending that claim recently, she said: ‘There is a provision for a veto but we couldn’t have used it because David Cameron pledged to support their membership and having given that pledge to a NATO country , he wouldn’t have been able to walk away.

It’s not the only part of her case that has come under scrutiny, with some Tory MPs accusing Ms Mordaunt of being ‘too wide awake’ on issues of trans rights and self-identification.

Deploying a decades-old Margaret Thatcher line (“every prime minister needs a Willie”) to push back on some of these issues has drawn some laughter but little respite from naysayers, notably the winger right Kemi Badenoch and some Ms. Truss allies.

Conservative leadership bid
Penny Mordaunt before the live TV debate hosted by Channel 4 (Victoria Jones/PA)

One of those Truss supporters, former Brexit minister Lord Frost, also went so far as to call Ms Mordaunt ‘missing the parade’ when he worked with her on post-Brexit negotiations. last year.

For her part, Ms Mordaunt has suggested the attacks are attempts to prevent her from reaching the party membership ballot – where she says her unblemished popularity with party members will see her all the way to Downing Street no matter who she will face in the final two. .

Yet for all her confidence, some observers suggested that Ms Mordaunt had wavered slightly in televised debates as she faced attacks from Mr Sunak for proposals on taxation and on changing the approach to the UK tax loan.

Now, as the competition intensifies, Ms Mordaunt will have to prevent her leadership bid from becoming a dying act.