Penny Mordaunt Emerges As Dark Horse Tory Leadership Candidate To Succeed Boris Johnson
Penny Mordaunt is emerging as a popular candidate among Conservative MPs to replace Boris Johnson, as the Prime Minister faces a key week in his fight to stay in Downing Street.
Trade minister Mordaunt, who has held several Cabinet positions including Secretary of State for Defence, is well-liked among so-called Red Wall MPs elected at the 2019 general election, many of whom are anxious about losing their recently-acquired seats over the ongoing Downing Street parties scandal.
An ally of Mordaunt told PoliticsHome: "She is focused on doing her job, and drawing attention to matters of grave concern, in particular the raft of challenges facing NATO."
Johnson is refusing to resign over the parties controversy, which has seen the Tories plummet in the polls, and there are not yet enough Tory MPs mounting a campaign to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. An inquiry into the numerous party allegations by senior Civil Servant Sue Gray is expected to report conclusions on alleged wrongdoing this month.
However, with his leadership in a highly-precarious state, and with the Conservatives facing the prospect of significant losses at May's local elections, the conversation among Tory MPs has turned to who should replace Johnson if he is ousted, or decides to walk away, before the next general election, which must take place by 2024.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, are widely seen as the early frontrunners to win the next Conservative leadership contest.
However, multiple Tory MPs elected at the last election have expressed their support for Mordaunt as a dark horse candidate to be the party's next leader, PoliticsHome understands, arguing that she is a safe pair of hands who could bring together the different wings of the party.
"Boris is inherently divisive to one side of the party, as was May," said a Tory party source. "They believe she's someone who can be a more unifying figure like David Cameron was."
A senior Conservative MP and ex-minister said that while Mordaunt's vocal backing for Brexit meant she could appeal to the staunchly pro-Leave wing of the party, she could also attract the support of self-styled moderates in the One Nation and Tory Rerform Group caucuses.
Mordaunt was also the third most popular choice among Tory party members when they were asked last month who should succeed Johnson, according to a regular survey carried out by ConservativeHome. Truss was the most popular choice, while Sunak was second.
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is also expected to put his name forward again when the next leadership contest takes place.
Gove has been working closely with the influential Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs (NRG) on the government's levelling up policy and is set to host them on the eve of the publication of the levelling up white paper, which is currently expected later this month.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary who came second to Johnson in the party's last leadership contest, is thought to be considering another leadership bid, as is Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, according to The Sunday Times.
Despite the crisis facing the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers continue to publicly defend Johnson and reject talk of a change in leadership.
Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, on Monday morning insisted that the Prime Minister's job was "safe" despite the public backlash and six Tory MPs calling on him to stand down.
Tim Loughton, the MP for East Worthing, last night became the latest to call for Johnson's resignation, saying in a statement that his position had become "untenable".
"His resignation is the only way to bring this whole unfortunate episode to an end and I am working with colleagues to impress that view on Number 10," the former minister said.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, last week said not only that Johnson should stay on as Prime Minister, but that he would go on and win the next general election.
The government is reportedly planning to announce a flurry of policies this week designed to pacify angry Tory MPs in a bid to protect Johnson's leadership dubbed "Operation Red Meat".
They are expected to include deploying the military to handle Channel crossings, according to The Times, while the Mail on Sunday reported that Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is set please BBC-critical Conservative MPs by announcing a two-year freeze to the license fee.
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