Who is Penny Mordaunt, the ‘dark horse’ challenger to Rishi Sunak in the UK PM race?
Not many know about Penny Mordaunt, even within the Conservative Party. The junior trade minister is emerging as a favourite in the leadership bid and might pose a formidable challenge to frontrunner Rishi Sunak
In the race to replace Boris Johnson as the next United Kingdom prime minister, former finance minister Rishi Sunak is leading with 101 votes. Not so far behind is an unlikely name: Penny Mordaunt. A favourite of bookmakers, she had 82 votes and is likely to emerge as the main challenger to the Indian-origin Sunak.
Mordaunt is a low-profile politician, who has largely kept away from the many controversies plaguing the Johnson government – partygate and whatnot.
According to a recent report published in DailyMail, only 11 per cent of the British public could identify the Conservative Party leader when shown her photograph. Even within the party, she’s not that popular. “She’s a bit of a mystery, to all of us,” Matthew Parris, a former Tory leader and political columnist, told the BBC.
Who is most likely to win a General Election? #PM4PM pic.twitter.com/6SMVJcOrxt
— Penny Mordaunt (@PennyMordaunt) July 15, 2022
So who is Penny Mordaunt?
The political plunge
The 49-year-old has been a lawmaker since 2010 and is now a junior trade minister. But even before running as a member of Parliament (MP), she was an active Tory member.
After graduating with a philosophy degree in 1995, she went on to become the head of youth of the Conservative Party. And then was appointed the Tory head of broadcasting under veteran politician William Hague.
She was also the head of foreign press for United States president George W Bush’s presidential candidate, working for both his 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
Thank you! 🎉#PM4PM pic.twitter.com/HNJrSMr8Rq
— Penny Mordaunt (@PennyMordaunt) July 13, 2022
One of her first big roles in the government was under former British premier David Cameron when she was made minister of the state for the armed forces, the first woman in the country to hold the job. It was a position she was well cut out for, given her strong military background -- her father was a parachuter and she was a member of the Royal Navy from 2010 to 2019, making her the only woman MP currently who is a navy reservist. She was made an honorary commander. (Fun fact: Penny was named after the Royal Navy frigate HMS Penelope)
Mordaunt was appointed minister for disabled people when Theresa May took power in 2016.
In 2019, she became the UK’s first woman defence secretary in the May Cabinet but was demoted by Johnson, reportedly for backing his rival Jeremy Hunt in the last Tory leadership race.
Now she had left Hunt behind; he was knocked out of the race in the first round.
— Penny Mordaunt (@PennyMordaunt) July 15, 2022
A leading voice of the “Leave” campaign during the Brexit referendum, Mordaunt continues to insist that the benefits of leaving the European Union are huge. In this race, she has positioned herself as a Brexiteer who will return the Conservative Party to its roots.
Now former Brexit minister David Frost has shared his “grave reservation” about Mordaunt. He has said that the trade minister went missing during negotiations with the EU last year and became such a “problem” that he was forced to ask Boris Johnson to dismiss her from talks, attacking her credentials as a Brexiteer.
“I’m sorry to say this, I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary when we were in negotiations,” Lord Frost told TalkTV. “She wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the EU when that was necessary.”
Ex Cabinet minister Lord Frost has "grave reservations" about Penny Mordaunt becoming the next PM.
"I am surprised at where she is in this leadership race. She was my deputy. She wasn't fully accountable or visible. I had to ask the PM to move her on"@JuliaHB1 | @DavidGHFrost pic.twitter.com/fju9f5QguN
— TalkTV (@TalkTV) July 14, 2022
Mordaunt has in the past spoken in favour of trans rights, once stating, “Trans men are men and trans women are women.” Now she is busy fending off allegations that she is “woke”.
In a recent interview, the former equalities minister said that she never supported changes to gender recognition law, trying desperately to shield her image as a Conservative Party leader.
“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,” Mordaunt has now said.
Her leadership bid also had a bit of a rocky start with her campaign video featuring Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who was convicted for killing his girlfriend. Paralympic athlete Jonnie Peacock was among the public figures who asked to be removed from the video and the MP was forced to edit it several times over.
Right now Mordaunt must be hoping she can make all the criticism go away with magic -- like did before joining politics.
Magic and more
To pay for secondary school, Mordaunt worked as a magician’s assistant to illusionist and close-up performer Will Ayling in Portsmouth (he was once the president of The Magic Circle).
In 2014, she appeared on a reality TV show Splash and was slammed by Labour, who said she should focus on her constituency. However, she defended signing up for the contest and donated the £10,000 appearance fee to charity, according to The Evening Standard.
During interviews to promote the show, Mordaunt revealed that her mother died of breast cancer when she was just 15 – the same year her father was also diagnosed with the disease – and she became a “child carer”, the report says.
Mordaunt took a gap year in Romania working at orphanages, which is where she claims her interest in politics began. She has come a long way since and if she wins will go on to become Britain’s third woman prime minister after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. And she has big shoes to fill.
With inputs from agencies
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