Penny Mordaunt: “We need a serious politician for a serious moment”
Penny Mordaunt made history this year by becoming the first woman to be appointed Secretary of State for Defence. After deciding to back Jeremy Hunt in the Tory leadership contest, the Cabinet Minister is focussing on improving the lives of military personnel and their families. She walks Kevin Schofield through her plans for the MoD, and explains why the Treasury has been ‘missing a trick’
Penny Mordaunt is in a hurry. Our already-delayed interview is running late, and when she arrives I’m told time is limited because she has another meeting with ministers in 20 minutes.
That’s what happens when you’ve barely been in a job a month and there’s a reasonable chance you might be in another one within weeks. There’s lots to do in a potentially very short space of time.
On 1 May, Mordaunt became the first woman to be appointed Defence Secretary following Gavin Williamson’s hasty departure from the Cabinet. By the end of July, a new Prime Minister will be in place who will inevitably want to re-shape the government frontbench in his image.
And while Mordaunt’s past as a naval reservist – a well as a year as Armed Forces minister under David Cameron – would suggest she is a perfect fit for the role she now occupies, she is realistic enough to appreciate that Theresa May’s successor may have their own plans for who should lead the MoD.
Mordaunt is keen to make the most of the time she has in the department, while making a strong case to hold onto her job. In particular, she wants to make life better for military personnel and their families.
“It is my first experience of going back into a department, and so you come with a big long list of things you want to get done and what you’ve been thinking about for a long time,” she says.
“For me it’s about putting our people first. Quite often they play second fiddle to equipment and everyone’s obviously focused on F35s and amazing kit, but actually our people are our most important asset.
“We often talk about service personnel and veterans, and clearly it’s well understood that we need to support those individuals, but we talk less about their families and quite often we lose people from the services because the quality of life for their families is a factor. I want to put the whole family package at the heart of what we do.”
This will include looking at how to put more money in the pockets of the men and women prepared to put their lives on the line for their country.
“The Armed Forces were exempt from the Living Wage because of the complexities of what they do and the fact they’re on call all the time,” Mordaunt says. “I’ve commissioned a piece of work to really understand what a Living Wage would mean for those individuals and I think we should pay them accordingly. If I stay in post it would be a spending priority for me that we take care of that issue.”
For Mordaunt, the political is very much the personal when it comes to defence. Her father was in the Parachute Regiment and she has been a Naval Reservist since 2009, last going to sea in 2013 onboard HMS Bulwark as part of Operation Cougar.
Or at least she was a reservist until April, when the Queen appointed her a commander with an honorary commission, one of only 30 people to hold the rank.
“You’re still part of the fleet but you help the service with a much more strategic role,” Commander Mordaunt – as she can now be called – explains. “It feels quite sad in a way, but I think it’s the right thing to do at this moment and with this job.
“I look forward to serving the fleet in my new role and it’s great that I still have a connection with the uniform.”
The Secretary of State says her military experience has stood her in good stead for political life – and enabled her to spot politicians who are in it for the right reasons, and far-right demagogues eager to capitalise on the division which exists across the country.
“There are many lessons I’ve learnt, but the two that are perhaps most poignant in politics today is firstly the parallels between the desire to serve in the Armed Forces and why people are motivated to go into politics,” she says. “There’s a difference between politics that is there to do good – why most of my colleagues in Parliament are there and have spent years getting there – and the sort of politics you see with people who don’t have a notion of service at heart – the Tommy Robinsons of this world.”
Mordaunt adds: “I also think politics today is about serve and leadership, and that’s what they teach you in the Armed Forces. It’s about how to lead others, it’s about how to inspire and enable the best in other people and I think that is a hugely powerful thing that I learnt when I was going through my naval training and through my officer training, and it’s stood me in good stead in Whitehall.”
This brings us neatly to the Tory leadership contest. Having weighed up her options – and despite being urged by those around her to throw her own hat into the ring – Mordaunt, who campaigned for Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum, surprised many by giving her support to Jeremy Hunt rather than one of his Brexiteer rivals.
Although she doesn’t mention him by name, it’s clear that Mordaunt is far from convinced that runaway favourite Boris Johnson has either the organisational skills or the political gravitas to deliver Brexit while also managing not to crash the economy in the process.
She says: “My decisions to back Jeremy are about the recognition that we have to deliver Brexit. It may sound counter-intuitive backing someone who campaigned for Remain, but I think we’re past the Brexiteer/Remainer divide. We’re now looking at people who recognise that democratically, if we’re going to keep faith in those institutions, we’ve got to deliver the result.
“When the British public trust you in the way that they did, and they still do, we cannot let people down. My choice of candidate was the person best equipped to do that. It’s not just enough to say that we’re going to do it, we have to do it. And I’ve always felt that we needed the Conservative Party to come together to do that – we’re not going to be helped by the Opposition in that course.
“I also think he is the sort of person who can reach across – given we have this massive divide in politics at the moment – to both sides. He’s got really good listening skills, he’s really empathetic. We need a serious politician for a serious moment.”
And while Johnson has insisted that the UK must leave the European Union on 31 October “deal or no deal”, Mordaunt believes it is more important to get Brexit right rather than remain wedded to an arbitrary deadline.
“Anyone can leave the EU, it’s how we do it, that’s why this is difficult,” she says. “Whilst there is a chance that we can get a good deal, we should fight for it.
“I have always said that I want Brexit done swiftly. This uncertainty for business is very bad. We need to be on our way out by around that time if not before that time. But as well as that we should be pursuing every avenue we can to ensure that we are leaving while causing the least disruption possible but also securing the upsides that there are going to be from us leaving the EU.”
The minister adds: “One of the challenges is that we will have to put some kind of legislation through and even if we were going with the existing deal that would be a tall order to get that done by that deadline.
“If we’re going to have a bit of leeway on that, there has to be a plan and it’s just a matter of getting the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted. That is Jeremy’s aim and he wants this done very fast. In his dialogue and rapport he has with European leaders, he’s in the best position to do that.”
While she says she could serve in a government which pursued a policy of no-deal, Mordaunt is clear that that would be a decidedly sub-optimal outcome.
“The perpetual limbo we’ve been in is starting to look a lot like a no-deal scenario because of the impact it’s having on investment,” she explains. “I’ve always said that we must go – no deal is better than no Brexit – but that is not the policy that we ought to pursue.
“We ought to be getting the best deal for Britain. WTO terms is fine, we could go with that, but it is not best for Britain and we need to fight for what’s best for our country.”
Mordaunt also reveals that she has demanded the Department for Exiting the EU ensure that after Brexit, the MoD has the choice of awarding shipbuilding contracts to UK yards.
This follows rows over EU firms – which currently must be allowed to bid for contracts – potentially putting thousands of British jobs at risk.
“I have communicated to DExEU that I will be looking for some red lines in our future negotiations with the EU which previously haven’t been brought forward,” she says. “I want to be able to have the choice about reserving our ability to build ships and other capabilities.
“Currently it is argued that we don’t have the choice and I have expressed that view very strongly to DExEU and have been backed up with support from an array of experts in this field. That is one thing I have done very swiftly. We may not choose to do it in all circumstances, we’re going to have much more work in our yards in the coming years, but I think we should reserve the right to do that.”
With a Whitehall spending review on the horizon, Mordaunt is currently putting together her case for the MoD to receive more money from the Treasury. The notoriously-parsimonious Philip Hammond has previously been unreceptive to such entreaties, but the minister believes she can reverse that trend.
She says: “I think that the Treasury has been missing a trick. It has not really understood the full value of defence to the nation. The methodology that it uses is flawed. So, in advance of the spending review I will be setting out why I think it should change its methodology towards its assessment of the return to the UK of investing in defence.
“I think there’s much more we can do to reap the benefits that defence brings to the UK prosperity agenda. The focus of my first few weeks has been precisely that. It’s been about resetting our relationship with industry, it’s about creating more opportunities for British companies.
“I think that we need to make a compelling case and I think we can make a compelling case. It’s not just the fact that it’s the duty of any government to make sure we have the capabilities, but it’s also looking at what else we bring. The research and development that’s going on in defence has tremendous potential for other sectors.
“We should not just be a drain on resource, we should be a contributor to resource, and if the Treasury see the opportunities they are not capitalising on at the moment, we will be able to do that and make a compelling argument why we are a very good investment.”
The current volatility in British politics means that Penny Mordaunt could well go down in history as one the shortest-serving Defence Secretaries of all time. But she clearly plans to make a splash, regardless of the length of her tenure.