In for a Penny: the new paymaster general on dyslexia, defence and making a difference
As Penny Mordaunt settles into her new role helping to plot Britain’s future relations with the EU, she talks to Rosa Prince about the experiences that have shaped her political career.
Penny Mordaunt was once so moved by the plight of a constituent who was struggling to get an official statement for her daughter with a challenging form of dyslexia to attend an accredited school that she took out a loan and paid the fees herself. “I was so cross at this cruel system,” she says.” I felt a lot of empathy. I could see the same frustrations this poor kid was facing in me.”
At the time she did this, she didn’t know she was dyslexic herself. She realises now her emotional connection was based on her own experiences as a schoolchild, a time in her life which was already highly challenging. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 15 and she took on much of the responsibility for caring for her younger brother (she also has a twin brother).
It took a toll on her school work, which, coupled with the undiagnosed dyslexia, meant: “No one batted an eyelid when I didn’t hand in my Ucas form. But what I’ve learnt is that, with determination, you can do pretty much anything. I was told I couldn’t do some things that I wanted to do, and I ignored that. I found that if you turn up and you focus enough, you can overcome all sorts of things.”
And for a woman who has been in parliament for just over a decade, she has spent more than enough of that time continuing to overcome adversity. She was a cabinet minister at the age of 44, landing her dream job as Britain’s first female defence secretary 18 months later in 2019, only to be unceremoniously returned to the backbenches after 85 days for the crime of backing the wrong horse in the leadership contest.
Now, having impressed No 10 with the equanimity with which she took her medicine, she is in from the cold and back in government, as paymaster general. And, as she exclusively reveals to The House, she has just been given responsibility for the EU negotiation beat in the Commons, while the newly-appointed chief Europe adviser Lord Frost will be reporting to the Lords.
Mordaunt insists she is unconcerned at no longer having a seat around the cabinet table, saying she can have an impact from elsewhere in government.
“When the Prime Minister offered me the job, my response to him was: ‘Yes, I want to help’. You have to make the most of every opportunity to make your voice heard and I've never found a problem doing that. I don’t trouble him every five minutes, but I can get a message to the PM very directly, whenever I want, and he does listen.”
A former women and equalities minister, Mordaunt won praise for the gender equality roadmap she published in July 2019, an agenda which seems to have fallen by the wayside, particularly during the pandemic.
She defends her successor, Liz Truss, however, saying there is a lot of “pent up” appetite for action once calmer times return. Indeed, she says she shares Truss’s vision for seeing equalities through the prism of the government’s levelling up agenda, an emphasis on helping everyone to achieve their best.
As a backbencher, Mordaunt had always taken an interest in people with disabilities and special needs, sensing a kinship that was confirmed when, prompted by her struggles to read, write and absorb information, she sought and received a diagnosis of dyslexia: “I cannot tell you what reading the 700-page [EU] Withdrawal Agreement in a dimly lit room, 12-point single space, is like [with dyslexia]. It was so tough, and you think: ‘God, I'm just not that bright’.
“Just knowing is such a relief. I could [stop] beating myself up about it and start to positively adapt.”
After attending Reading University as a mature student, Mordaunt found her way into politics through Conservative Central Office, where she was swiftly tapped for higher things. Having become MP for Portsmouth North in 2010 at the second time of asking, she enlisted as a Royal Navy reservist, a role she maintained until she joined the cabinet, when she was appointed an honorary Royal Naval commander with MCM2 Squadron, based in her home town of Portsmouth.
Service is very much what motivates Mordaunt in both politics and the Navy, and she describes her time as defence secretary as a “huge privilege” which she believes encouraged other women to take on similar roles. “I have just such respect [for the armed forces],” she says. “I’m from Portsmouth, so the Navy is in my DNA.
“When I talk to women veterans about their experiences and the complete trailblazers they were, they always say: ‘Oh, gosh, you were defence secretary’. I say: ‘Well, because you did what you did, right?’”
Mordaunt is confident the armed forces are becoming a more viable career path for women. “They've changed really dramatically in their whole attitude towards women and diversity in such a short space of time. And they’re doing it for a reason. They’re doing it to be more operationally effective.”
You have to be authentic. I am a potty mouth sailor.
Her experiences growing up and in the Navy have clearly made her a more rounded, if rather unconventional, politician. She famously appeared in her swimsuit on a TV game show and jokingly inserted fruity language into a parliamentary speech after losing a bet with fellow reservists.
“You have to be true to yourself, you have to be authentic,” she says. “I am a potty mouth sailor and absolutely my experiences have shaped my politics. It gives you an empathy with people and a rapport with people. But actually [so have] lots of colleagues. We’ve got colleagues who are working shifts on the NHS, who are volunteering on the vaccine programme [as is Mordaunt] … So I don’t think I’m the outlier.”
She’s also relaxed around the culture wars which have sprung up in recent years, including the apparent division between the rights of women and trans people, which she was drawn into after introducing a bill allowing attorney general Suella Braverman to take maternity leave. When the legislation originally referred to “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, the Lords objected; Mordant compromised by committing to the principle that “trans men are men, and trans women are women” while changing the offending words to “pregnant mothers”.
“The difficulty when you're writing legislation is it has to be accurate. The compromise was a departure from normal drafting, but “mother” is a term which I think will be acceptable to people. Because if you're a trans man and you give birth, you’re still a mother.
“The bulk of parliamentarians and the bulk of the public are not at war with each other on these matters. Everyone wants people’s rights to be protected, people to be supported to live their best life.
“I understand how women are feeling about language, or safety, or women-only spaces. And I also want to protect and reassure trans people. These are not incompatible positions.”
Mordant is keen that women are not put off entering politics by the trolls or the heated nature of some of the culture wars, or, indeed, the sexism she acknowledges still exists.
“The good in the job far outweighs the bad,” she says. “It’s important to say that, because we need more women to run for office.”
She adds: “You’re making a profound difference every day, sometimes to an individual, or a family, sometimes on a much bigger scale. It is an incredible job, personally rewarding, but also just an immense privilege.”