Penny Mordaunt could win the Tory leadership race if she puts her name in the ring
The first woman Defence Secretary is best-placed to prevent a Boris Johnson coronation, writes Sebastian Whale
It is a fool’s errand to make political assertions these days. Nevertheless, I am going to make one – if Penny Mordaunt joins the Tory leadership race, she has the best chance of beating Boris Johnson of any of the potential candidates.
Mordaunt is not as well-known as some of the other contenders to replace Theresa May. Not that this should really count against her – many of the big names have been in the public eye since the Coalition years. Nearly all were intimately involved in Theresa May’s government.
While Mordaunt has been a Cabinet minister in said administration for nearly 18 months, she has largely kept her head down. Though she voted for the Withdrawal Agreement three times, you’d be hard-pressed to find many clips of her defending the deal in public. Like May during the EU referendum, she has cleverly kept herself to herself so as not to alienate parts of the Conservative broad-church (though hardline Brexiteers such as Steve Baker and Mark Francois will probably not stomach someone who backed May’s deal).
In May, Mordaunt became the first woman to be appointed Defence Secretary. Her military hinterland makes her far more suited for the MoD than her predecessor ever was. The fact May chose Gavin Williamson over Mordaunt in the first instance speaks volumes about the PM’s political nous.
Insofar as the Tory membership is concerned, Mordaunt has Brexiteer credentials she can talk up to the grassroots. She made the case strongly during the referendum (her words on Turkey’s accession to the EU will still grate with some on the opposing side of the argument). With Michael Gove’s campaign imploding over his admission of cocaine use, Boris Johnson is heading for a coronation. Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock face the same infliction in the eyes of most of the Tory membership in having voted Remain. Rory Stewart is having a good war, but it seems he has yet to win over enough Tory MPs. Dominic Raab's campaign, in which he has shown leg to proroguing parliament, has yet to really gather momentum.
Few have been able to or are in a good position to properly expose Johnson’s foibles. Gove’s revelations have neutered much of his ability to counter Johnson over how well suited he is to be prime minister. But Mordaunt, who possesses a sharp wit (her loyal address in reply to the 2014 Queen’s Speech is well worth a watch), could easily expose Johnson in much the same way that Amber Rudd did back in the EU referendum campaign. Amid a contest largely made up of men, she could cut through the noise by appearing more statesmanlike than the ex-London mayor.
With Hunt’s words yesterday on lowering the abortion limit, space is opening for a serious contender to step forward. Mordaunt has until 5pm today to gather the requisite nominees to join the leadership race.
Of course, Mordaunt might be holding out for the next contest, to pick up the pieces from May’s successor. But the outlook for a future leadership election could be completely different. Politics is littered with nearly men and women who dipped their toe rather than diving in head first.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.