Last Tuesday, Penny Mordaunt triumphed at the Dispatch Box. In a speech lasting three minutes and 46 seconds she demolished Angela Rayner.
According to Henry Deedes, sketching the contest for The Daily Mail,
“You’d struggle to find a more elegant piece of skewering among Marseille’s finest kebabists.”
Rayner claimed that ministers “act like the rules are for other people”, and have repeatedly broken those rules. Mordaunt replied with icy self-possession:
“The right hon. Lady has made particular accusations today about colleagues, and I want to make a final point, Mr Speaker. If you were to take every single MP she has made an allegation about this afternoon, if you were to look at all the political donations they have received since the pandemic started, since January 2020, and if you were to add them all up and then double them—no, quadruple them—you would just about match what the right hon. Lady herself has received in the same time period. She should thank her lucky stars that we do not play the same games that she does.”
This sounded just the kind of point Michael Gove might have made had he been defending the Government, and some good judges even saw “Michael’s hand” in these words.
Rayner, who now rejoices in the title of shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, had supposed she would be taking on Gove, who is in many ways the most formidable debater on the Government benches.
It was instead Mordaunt, as Paymaster General, outside the Cabinet but a Cabinet Office minister, who was given the chance to remind Conservatives that she too is a considerable Commons performer, and can be relied on to carry the fight to the Opposition.
As ConHome noted in an earlier profile of her, published in March 2016 and predicated on the possibility that she might be a future leader:
“Mordaunt has a go-for-it mentality, which emerges at quite frequent intervals in her career, and is accompanied by a gift for publicity.”
She followed up her Commons performance with a piece in last week’s Daily Telegraph in which she mounted a bold defence of the Government’s record during the pandemic:
“I am proud to be part of this Government and to serve under such a determined, resilient, and popular leader…
“We…prioritised community assets over individual freedoms. The Government’s decision to protect the NHS and save lives was reminiscent of Churchill’s response to the U boat threat. He instinctively recognised that it was the one thing that could really hurt us.
“This is where the Prime Minister deserves personal praise. As someone who is an instinctive libertarian, he made the most difficult decision of his career.”
Her comparison with the Second World War was marred by a horrible blunder, when she described the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 as “the first and last victory of the war that was fought chiefly with British leadership”.
It fell to the present Viscount Slim to remind her that in Burma “the largest British-led campaign of the Second World War” began in 1942, and involved at its height a mainly Commonwealth army of 1.25 million personnel, which nicknamed itself the Forgotten Army, and which, unfortunately, was forgotten by Mordaunt, a former Defence Secretary.
What do Boris Johnson, Bill Gates, Elton John, Tony Blair, Ruth Davidson, Richard Curtis, Richard Branson, Kim Leadbeater, Michael Dobbs, Malcolm Rifkind, Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon have in common?
All of them have provided puffs for Mordaunt’s new book, Greater: Britain After The Storm, written with Chris Lewis and published last Thursday.
Blair described it as “uplifting and highly readable”, Branson said it is “utterly uplifting and inspiring”, Curtis settled for “really readable and funny”, while Johnson’s verdict is “loving, invigorating and delivered with characteristic wit”.
One may doubt whether these critics found either the time or the inclination to read the whole book, for like almost all such manifestos, it is sprinkled with ludicrous assertions.
On an early page, the American Ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, is said to have given a speech which is “shorter than the Gettysburg Address and just as powerful”.
In a later chapter, Parliament is dismissed as “about as out of touch with a modern democracy as it’s possible to be”, and some shoot-from-the-hip proposals are made for reform of the Lords and Commons, which earned the book a short write-up in The Sunday Times.
But the point of such a book is not to show literary merit. It is generally written to demonstrate the fitness of the author to be leader, a role reckoned to require energy, vision and grim determination, all of which are needed to get a book finished.
Anyone who would like to see Mordaunt display those qualities in shorter form is referred to her piece in September 2018 for ConHome entitled The twelve new rules of politics, and also to her piece in May 2019 entitled It’s time for servant leadership that will listen to the people.
Mordaunt supported Leave in the EU Referendum of 2016, but saw the need afterwards to bring the two sides together.
Theresa May made her Minister of State for Disabilities from 2016-17, put her in the Cabinet as International Development Secretary from 2017-19, and promoted her to the role of Defence Secretary from May to July 2019.
This was a highly suitable post for her, given her service background, outlined in the earlier ConHome profile. Even as Defence Secretary she continued as a Royal Navy reservist, a combination of roles which the Navy found, in the words of one of her colleagues, “mildly uncomfortable”, for she was both extremely senior and rather junior.
By this stage, May’s prime ministership was tottering to its close, and having established that despite her ConHome pieces, she did not have enough support to run for the leadership herself, Mordaunt decided to back Jeremy Hunt, and became a member of his campaign team.
Had Hunt won, she could have expected a senior Cabinet post. But although he got to the final two, he lost heavily to Johnson, who proceeded to sack Mordaunt.
She might have gone off to chair a select committee, the role taken by Hunt himself. But instead she set to work on her book, and in the reshuffle of February 2020 accepted the post of Paymaster General, well below her previous level.
“I’m sure that Boris has told her if she’s helpful she can come back [into the Cabinet],” a former minister told ConHome. “But Boris tells everyone that.”
“I’m a big fan,” another former minister said. “I would have thought she would be an absolutely prime candidate for promotion to the Cabinet. There’s an awful lot of talent in the party, but I’d put her top of my list.”
“She’s very determined, very ambitious and generally very competitive,” a third ex-minister said, contemplating her chances of one day becoming leader. “But I don’t know how far she has been able to ingratiate herself with the 2019 intake.”
Because of the pandemic, nobody has been able to woo that intake much.
Mordaunt has a headstrong quality, and has on a considerable number of issues defied the Government line. Last summer she said there were many “inconsistencies” in Dominic Cummings’ account of his visit to Barnard Castle, and accused him of undermining the Government’s key public health messages.
She is a resolute social liberal, and in March told the Commons that ‘transmen are men and transwomen are women’, a position far in advance of Government policy.
At about the same time, she defied the Government line by meeting the Muslim Council of Britain.
So she could already have been fired for insubordination. Perhaps this accounts for the more loyal tone she has recently struck, though that could also proceed from the realisation that Johnson is on course to emerge strengthened from the pandemic, which means the best she can hope for is to get back into the Cabinet, which in turn will only happen if she convinces the Prime Minister that she is loyal.