Penny Mordaunt can’t stay out of the headlines. Whether she’s stealing the monarch’s spotlight by wielding a 3.6kg sword perfectly perpendicular to her direction of travel, or delivering equally spiky jabs at a former Prime Minister for her supposed Covid party, Penny is making waves in Westminster. .
When Liz Truss appointed her as Leader of the House of Commons in September, the aim was to silence the twice-failed Conservative leadership hopeful. Rishi Sunak, who retained Mordaunt’s services as the minister in charge of delivering the weekly business statement, could not, on this matter, criticize Truss’s reasoning.
In fact, as Theresa May discovered in 2017 when she appointed Andrew Leadsom to the job, a Thursday morning dispatch box can be the perfect place to hide a vanquished person. if enduringly ambitious rival. But since October, Mordaunt has consistently defied the restrictions of his brief department, emerging once again as one of the Conservative party’s most visible ministers.
It’s one of the curious things about the head of the commons publication, which specializes in the mundanity of House corporate governance, that it fell to Mordaunt earlier this week to table the motion on the privileges committee’s report on if Boris Johnson lied to the House. about partygate.
Royal College of Surgeons stops opposing assisted dying as most surgeons support
BASC will start legal action against Defra
This provided the perfect platform for Mordaunt to announce that he would vote for the multi-party group’s report, stealing headlines as the first cabinet member to do so. It meant that when she got to the dispatch box, the leader herself fiercely defended the House from her: “This matters because the integrity of our institutions matters,” she said. “The respect and trust that is given to them is important. This has real-world consequences for the accountability of members of parliament to each other and to the members of the public they represent.”
There was also time for more reproaches to the former prime minister. Johnson, who once tried to silence Mordaunt by sequestering her in the commerce department, was charged with an “honors system demotion.”
In short, the leader’s speech meant the staunch defense of parliament and its institutions that many would have wanted from the prime minister. We remember that moment in October, at the height of the “mini-budget” fallout, when Mordaunt was tasked with answering a pressing question in Truss’s stead. The then prime minister “was not (hiding) under a desk,” Mordaunt confirmed to no avail.
Now it is Rishi Sunak who faces accusations of being scared by his decision to abstain on the privileges committee report. And in his direct support of the partygate report, as well as his “defense” of Truss, Mordaunt surely knew exactly what he was doing.
In fact, by putting her head so prominently on the parapet of the party’s door, Mordaunt’s performance raised the question: why couldn’t the prime minister do the same? The head of the commons could be seen, sitting alone on the front bench, providing moral and political leadership in the vacuum created by the prime minister.
The Conservative leadership race 2024/25
The key criticism leveled at Penny Mordaunt in the two 2022 leadership elections was that few activists or commentators knew why, or for what reason, the prime minister wanted to be prime minister.
In the summer contest, she changed her mind about transgender rights and was accused of being confusing in economics after pondering the monetary policy mechanisms she would put in place to control inflation. (She was even told that she couldn’t “master the details” by *check notes* Lord Frost).
There was an overwhelming feeling that Mordaunt, a Brexiteer with liberal social views and a long-time minister who had yet to hold a major state office, had failed to hone her political discourse, either for MPs or campaigners. . Ultimately, Penny Mordaunt’s misadventures in 2022 culminated in the former Secretary of Defense failing to reach the 100 MP mark in October’s fast-paced contest.
But in 2023, Mordaunt’s political fortunes have risen longer and faster than any other government minister. Largely due to her antics with her sword, she is now the second most popular cabinet minister in a monthly poll by the ConservativeHome website, a key arbiter of sentiment among grassroots party activists.
Of course, it’s no secret that the contest for the Conservative leadership has resumed. Suella Braverman delivered a speech to the National Conservatism Conference earlier this month that was widely interpreted as a soft launch of her run for her leadership. Kemi Badenoch, another stronghold of the conservative right, may have tried to reposition his political appeal by waiving the deadline to scrap EU laws.
We are some way from a Conservative leadership election and Mordaunt’s performance at the party gate may serve over time to alienate Boris’s tribal supporters in the Conservative membership. But even so, the leader’s attempt to launch Boris’s boil, juxtaposed with Sunak’s reluctance (along with Badenoch’s and Braverman’s) marks a key moment in her tilt toward a fuller political tone.
Mordaunt’s party stance also comes after a speech earlier this month in which the commons leader warned her colleagues to spend less time fighting culture wars. “Your team is the nation, and we have to reframe our history in those terms, and that’s why the culture wars and all that doesn’t help, because we’re here for everyone,” she said at a Center for Policy Studies event. held in honor of Margaret Thatcher. She seemed like an unsubtle jab at Kemi Badenoch, the party’s current frontrunner for the Conservative leadership and the government’s most zealous culture warrior.
Mordaunt, therefore, that perennial leadership candidate, appears to be establishing her position as a more moderate Tory alternative, fusing anti-Braverman and Badenoch tendencies into the Parliamentary party. We know that the rules of the Conservative leadership contest are therefore that only two MPs, having been reduced by rounds of MP voting, face off among the members. So far it appears that Braverman and Badenoch will be competing for the attention of MPs on the party’s right. It leaves Mordaunt a direct path to claiming the mantle of moderate challenger: the Jeremy Hunt or the Rishi Sunak of 2024/5. Of course, Mordaunt will want to be more successful.
The one who wields the sword…
After the coronation, it was certainly worth seeing how Mordaunt positioned himself politically. And, fittingly, the party performance by the leader of the commons has provided the perfect backdrop for a renewed nod for the conservative crown.
It’s also worth noting that a Savanta poll over the summer found that only 11 percent of the public and 16 percent of Tory voters could correctly name Mordaunt when shown a photo of her. It was a direct consequence of her silent performance as junior minister in the commerce department; she compared herself to 66 percent of Sunak and 33 percent of Truss.
Now, one by one, Mordaunt’s triumphant rivals have hoped to preserve her calm profile by making her the leader of the common role. But after the feast and coronation, we see how Mordaunt has deployed her post, with all her ceremonial trappings, to significant political effect.
Also, not having a policy brief or departmental record tainted by association with the Sunak government may provide Mordaunt with an ideal platform for a leadership challenge. Likewise, he has turned his leader out of the commons—through his command of the House on a Thursday morning and taking over events like the privileges committee vote— in a de facto “big office” role.
With a clearer political tone and a heightened public profile, therefore, Mordaunt is better positioned than ever for a future leadership contest. The one who wielded the sword may still end up wearing the crown.