Penny Mordaunt interview: 'Other people are confused about what I think about things, but that's their affair'
She ran for the Conservative leadership, announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II to the Privy Council and proclaimed the new monarch King Charles III. Penny Mordaunt looks back on a whirlwind few months – and tells Tali Fraser what comes next. Photography by Baldo Sciacca.
Penny Mordaunt has rushed over from answering business questions on the floor of the Commons to answer personal questions on the 22nd floor of Millbank Tower. The new Leader of the House of Commons has booked out a room at her friend Chris Lewis’s PR agency as she likes the view of Parliament.
The pair wrote a book together last year, Greater: Britain After the Storm, endorsing an optimistic outlook of the country’s future – and featuring a foreword by Bill Gates. He wrote: “Britain is a force for good because of its strong institutions which are devoted to helping fellow nations… No one knows this better than Penny Mordaunt.”
Gates is not alone in his view of the MP for Portsmouth North. She has an eclectic collection of admirers, including the director Richard Curtis, who once compared her to the silver screen star Catherine Deneuve. “I think I tend to model myself more on Margaret Rutherford than Catherine Deneuve,” Mordaunt says dryly, “but people are entitled to their views.”
Rutherford or Deneuve, Mordaunt, 49, has recently had plenty of screen time: running and just missing out on the Conservative leadership, joining Liz Truss’s Cabinet as Leader of the House, and then becoming the first woman to formally announce the death of a monarch to the Privy Council and proclaim His Majesty the King. It must have felt like a whirlwind. She remains remarkably phlegmatic, however: “Every week is a whirlwind; it is just each one is a different flavour.”
The task of proclaiming the new monarch would have been daunting for any Commons Leader, let alone one so new to the job. On 10 September, four days after being appointed and two days on from the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Mordaunt was watched by millions at home and abroad as she took on the role in the Accession Council at St James’s Palace. She did not receive the text she would be reading in the proclamation until “very shortly before”. Was she nervous? “You don’t want to mess up but you also want people to have confidence in the whole process,” she says. “The beauty of the words, I wanted to make sure they were clear, that people – although it was ancient language – understood what was being said. But you are there to facilitate it. It’s not about you. I wanted to just do the best job I possibly could.” She can now just about bring herself to joke: “I didn’t fall over.”
Even in the Accession Council, I was using my officer training.
For Mordaunt, one of the most moving moments of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was seeing 142 Royal Navy sailors pull the gun carriage to Westminster Abbey, and later on to Wellington Arch. It was a natural response, given her background both as Britain’s first female defence secretary – albeit for only 85 days – and as a Navy reservist since 2009, now with an honorary commission to MCM2 Squadron given to her by the late Queen. The skills she developed still benefit her today: “Even in the Accession Council, I was using my officer training where you learn how to project and keep people calm. You might be panicking about all sorts of things, but then you reassure people, work with them and enable them to be effective as a team.”
She now plans to use the opening address to Conservative Party Conference to deliver what she hopes will be a “unifying and reassuring” speech on the nation and the late Queen. Her message: that “in the tough days ahead” we should reflect that Her late Majesty “reminded us all who we are”.
It might well have been Mordaunt rather than Truss greeting the new King as his first prime minister on becoming monarch, but she narrowly failed to make it to the final two of the Conservative leadership race, missing out to Truss by nine MPs. How did that feel? Mordaunt prefers not to look backwards. “I was pleased to get the support I did,” she says. “Now I will do whatever I can to ensure that this is a successful government.” This is as far as she will go when discussing the contest; the Navy reservist has clearly put up an armed guard around her own feelings.
During the leadership race, Mordaunt at times came under criticism from those she must now sit around the Cabinet table with. Secretary of State for Transport Anne-Marie Trevelyan, then her ministerial boss at the Department for International Trade, accused her of missing work to prepare her leadership campaign, while new Home Secretary Suella Braverman dubbed her “the woke candidate”. Did that hurt? She doesn’t say. “It is not about me or them, it is about us, serving our constituents and getting on with the job,” Mordaunt explains. “I’m focused on other things that I can do and the things that I can control – and that is your own behaviour.”
A row over her use of a private helicopter with Lewis to promote their book at the Hay Literary Festival earlier this year flared up during the leadership contest, leading Mordaunt to accuse her rivals of “black ops”. Asked now about the tone of the campaign, Mordaunt rows back, claiming: “I always smile wryly when we talk about war rooms and black ops; we just need to get a grip of the fact this is not high drama, military operations, it’s politics.”
As a child in Portsmouth during the early 80s, Mordaunt’s first experience of politics was military: “If you grow up in a place like Portsmouth… you see service all the time, not just in the fleet but in all support services, [such as] the effort the dockyard workers made getting the ships ready for the Falklands [conflict],” she says. “One of my school friends’ fathers didn’t come back. It just gives you an appreciation of what our forces do for us. Experiencing that very directly at a young age was very formative.”
We just need to get a grip of the fact this is not high drama, military operations, it's politics.
She was named after the Second World War cruiser HMS Penelope by her father, John, a former paratrooper, and mother, Jennifer, a nursery teacher. Jennifer died in Penny’s arms, when she was only 15, after a long illness with breast cancer. In a terrible stroke of fate, her father was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards.
While he recovered, during his treatment the responsibility fell on Penny to care for her twin James and their younger brother Edward.
“You do what you need to do as a family to get through things,” she says. There was no formal support back then for child carers, either.
Have her experiences then influenced her political life now? “I suppose at a young age, if you have a lot of responsibility and you’re coming into contact with services that aren’t working for you, you tend to take a greater deal of interest in those than the average 15-year-old,” she says. “It makes you think about how you want to live your life and what you want to do with your life, but also the importance of making a difference and taking care of people. It helps you be a good MP, because you know what it’s like to try and get stuff to happen, or services to help you and your family.”
James had been supportive of his twin, sharing pictures of the two at London Pride. But in February, following a speech from then party chairman Oliver Dowden criticising “woke warriors”, he tweeted: “If you are a member of the Conservative Party, a Conservative MP, part of this homophobic transphobic government, you are complicit.” Mordaunt faced criticism for having told MPs “trans men are men, trans women are women” at the launch of a consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act in 2018, with leaked documents later suggesting she had backed watering down the legal process for transitioning. She was then accused of having changed tack during the leadership contest by claiming that she “never supported self ID,” and differentiating between legal and biological status. Have her views become confused as she balances family and party? Mordaunt says: “No. I know what I think about things. Lots of other people are confused about what I think about things, but that’s their affair.”
“I believe very strongly we’re here to serve everyone in this country. We’re here to particularly help groups that are very vulnerable and feel very misunderstood. And we’re here to get the best health care and services for everyone. I’ve never wavered from that,” she adds.
Lots of other people are confused about what I think about things, but that's their affair.
In her new role as Commons Leader, there are plenty of issues where Mordaunt will need to set out her views – and make sure others are not confused along the way. Primary among these are the controversial decisions that will need to be taken about the future of the crumbling Palace of Westminster. In July the Commons was forced to delay sitting due to a water leak, the second in three years, and the entire estate is in need of restoration, which is estimated to cost in the region of £22bn. Mordaunt admits “occasionally you have something shut because a gargoyle or something has fallen off,” but says she is “very conscious that we have the restoration and renewal programme against the backdrop of [the] cost of living [crisis].”
She floats getting out of “one part of the building for a short period of time, rather than a very expensive programme to recreate a Chamber”. What about the plan to move Parliament to York once proposed by Boris Johnson? She laughs: “No, no, no… all these things, they are decisions for the future.”
Another pressing issue is the culture of sleaze, including a recent torrent of complaints about sexism and sexual harassment in Westminster. Mordaunt agrees more needs to be done to tackle this culture and demonstrate that Parliament has a professional working environment. She says: “I am a great believer in listening to colleagues who have thought long and hard about this from all sides of the House about how they think this can be improved.” But she also says “it is a peculiar workplace” and part of the problem can be “around some of the unique stresses in the job”.
Asked if she herself had experienced anything untoward, Mordaunt says: “Everyone has had experiences throughout their career – you want to ensure up-and-coming generations don’t have experiences like that.” She adds: “Having a proper HR function in government for ministers is something that is long overdue, and I have been having discussions with the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Nadhim Zahawi, about this.”
Mordaunt has big plans for her role of Commons Leader. She not only wants to help deliver the government’s agenda but also build a stronger connection between the Commons, MPs and the people. One of her main missions is to get parliamentary processes delivering for the public and she is willing “to prod the Whitehall machine” to get business “moving through both Houses at the pace that the country needs us to”. Mordaunt likes to say her constituents could order something on Amazon to arrive in three hours, while she has to explain why something they care about is going to take three years to sort in Parliament. “We’ve had cost of living, energy, health and the growth plan in the Commons, and from those things there will be legislation that flows. It is no good us having a chat about that for two years. We’ve got to get things going, we’ve got to get things moving, we’ve got to be removing the obstacles for people to achieve their ambitions.”
Will changes in the Commons actively make a positive impact for ordinary people? “Yes: they’re not going to notice whether we’ve had some fabulous, innovative use of secondary legislation, but they will, if we do our jobs well, notice a difference to their opportunities and their experiences.” For Mordaunt, that would be a win.
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