“Mordaunt” is a Norman surname. It belonged to one of the Conqueror’s henchmen who came over with him in 1066 and is thought to derive from the French expression, “mort d’entaille” (or something similar), which quite literally means “death by cuts”. Liz Truss, now Foreign Secretary and Penny Mordaunt’s former boss at the Department for International Trade, might prefer the twelfth-century meaning of “biter”, referring to someone who succeeds as a result of another person’s misfortunes.
Penny Mordaunt is shaping up to be quite some rival, and she is certainly not lacking in ambition. Liz Truss has been openly planning her campaign to succeed the leader of the Tory Party for quite some time, but Penny Mordaunt appears to have been at it even longer, in secret: her pm4pm.com website was registered on May 24, 2019. That’s a little over three weeks after she became Secretary of State for Defence for just under three months in Theresa May’s caretaker government.
She is pretty, she is polished, she is poised, and she is taking this contest to be our next prime minister by storm. The North Portsmouth MP is perhaps benefitting from being a relative unknown, a blank canvas upon which MPs and Tory Party members can project their wishful thinking and secret fantasies of a Maggie Thatcher-like figure to dominate them. But scratch beneath Penny Mordaunt’s impressive façade and what do we find? Before the leadership contest, she was known for five things:
An unmaidenly speech in Parliament
Penny Mordaunt littered a 2014 House of Commons speech about poultry welfare with smutty inuendo to fulfil a dare from Royal Navy reservist pals. She was accused by MPs of trivialising parliament and treating it like a TV reality show.
A whopper of a lie
During the 2016 Brexit campaign, Penny Mordaunt went on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and claimed that Turkey was definitely joining the EU and that the UK could do nothing to stop it. Marr tried to correct her, reminding her that we had a veto, but she remained adamant. She also endorsed a new VoteLeave poster of dirty feet entering a British passport with the caption: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”. To put this in context, VoteLeave had already sent a dog-whistle leaflet with this graphic to every household:
Anybody who knows anything about the EU knows that Turkey was never going to join. At the rate it was progressing through the 35 chapters of accession, it would have taken at least 600 years to join. Add to that, in many countries denial of the Armenian Holocaust is against the law, so those countries, especially France, would have vetoed Turkish membership on those grounds alone, since Turkey refuses to recognise that event.
Six years later, with Brexit “done” (in a Schrödinger sort of way), does this incident still matter? YES: Parliament has just got rid of one dishonest oaf of a prime minister and we don’t want another dissembler in his place. What’s more, the leadership candidates are running on “restoring trust” in government, their party and politicians, so their own personal integrity is absolutely germane to their fitness for office.
A parliamentary first
On a more positive note, Penny Mordaunt became the first minister to ever use sign language at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. She was highlighting the 2018 Global Disability Summit and rightfully won much praise for her action.
A robust defence of cronyism
In May 2020 Penny Mordaunt gave Angela Rayner what right-wing commentators variously described as a “mauling”, a “savaging” and a “frightful biffing” when responding to her urgent question on cronyism in the award of PPE contracts. It was certainly a self-assured performance full of righteous indignation. However, subsequent investigation over the past couple of years has vindicated Ms Rayner, with over £11.5 billion worth of PPE ordered from Tory cronies being stored (at the cost of millions of taxpayers’ pounds) or destroyed, because it is not fit for purpose. What matters more? A lie so well told it appears to be true, or the actual truth?
Taking on Temerko
Alexander Temerko, former Kremlin insider and arms dealer, now wind energy magnate, once boasted that he had enough MPs in his pocket to topple the prime minister and was indeed involved in an early but at that time unsuccessful attempt to replace Theresa May with his close friend Boris Johnson. He denies he is a Russian asset and makes much of having been born in Ukraine, albeit when it was part of the Soviet Union. Dozens of Tory MPs’ reputations have been tainted by taking money from him, but Penny Mordaunt is not among them. Indeed, he branded her an ‘absolutely uncontrollable woman’ in early 2022 after she lent her support to the successful campaign to block his company, Aquind, from building a subsea electricity cable from the UK to France. She has since called on all her fellow Tory MPs to avoid taking any more donations from him.
Since announcing her candidacy…
Apart from using sign language from the Commons’ Dispatch Box, this record is not impressive. In the period before the launch of her campaign, as Penny Mordaunt was building up momentum, she committed five major errors:
Doubling down on a lie: LBC’s Iain Dale confronted her about the great Turkey lie, and instead of owning up and apologising, she doubled down on it. This led to BBC Politics re-issuing its fact check report once again. After three years of a prime minister who has to be fact-checked almost every time he opened his mouth, aren’t we all tired of such duplicitous dishonesty?
Exaggeration: Allison Pearson of The Telegraph wrote a puff-piece extolling Penny Mordaunt’s virtues. For those familiar with Ms Pearson’s work, it will come as no surprise that the article was somewhat detached from reality, with the wild claim that Royal Navy reservist Ms Mordaunt was command qualified and could captain a ship. This put the wind up the sails of the Royal Navy, and not in a good way. Penny Mordaunt may hold the honorary rank of captain, but she has only served in land-lubber positions, and most certainly could not command a ship.
“She isn’t [currently] a trained or paid reservist, she’s never qualified or been commissioned. She’s been banging the naval drum for days and enough is enough. How she has presented herself – and how she has allowed herself to be presented – have been deeply misleading,” one highly-decorated former senior naval officer said.
Inconsistency: When asked what made her want to become prime minister, Penny Mordaunt spun a misty-eyed, patriotic account of watching our troops sail out of Portsmouth en route to the Falklands War when she was a wee lassie of nine years old… This flatly contradicts what she previously told The Evening Standard:
“I got interested in politics after doing aid work in Romanian orphanages and saw how problems were caused by bad political decisions.”
The public understandably abhors this kind of manipulation, which undermines her purported integrity still further.
Rowing back on liberal views: Penny Mordaunt became embroiled in a bizarre blue-on-blue argument with fellow leadership candidates Liz Truss, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch over exactly who said and did what on the government’s recent reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. This has led to claims that Penny Mordaunt is too “woke” and was pushing for “self-identification” when equalities minister. Kemi Badenoch later succeeded her and together with Liz Truss reversed that position.
Penny Mordaunt, whose twin brother James is an LGBT+ activist and who has described the Tory Party as being complicit in the “hatred of gay people” and “driving LGBT rights backwards”, denied that she ever supported self-identification. This has come as a surprise to Pink News, who say they worked on the subject for five years with her. The risk is she will alienate people who have previously respected her for her “live and let live” pragmatism, whilst not convincing the anti-woke brigade that she is one of them.
Fake video: Although Penny Mordaunt’s campaign launch was lauded as the best of any of the candidates, and, unlike Liz Truss, she didn’t get lost either getting to it or leaving the podium afterwards, her campaign video was beset with controversy. There was an outcry that Brexiter Mordaunt used footage of Jo Cox, the Labour MP killed for pro-EU views by a fanatical Leave supporter. Then British paralympic athlete Jonnie Peacock said she did not have his permission to use footage of him and requested that it be removed. To make matters worse, she had included shots of convicted South African murderer Oscar Pistorius and used footage of doctors and nurses outside Hospital Universitario Fundación Jiménez Díaz in Madrid as ‘NHS staff clapping’. Oh dear. Boris Johnson’s lack of attention to detail was one of his biggest flaws. Can we afford another PM like that?
So far we’ve seen that Penny Mordaunt is economical with the truth, cynically manipulative and willing to sacrifice her principles for “the prize” of becoming prime minister. Arguably, there are even more sinister reasons to bar Ms Mordaunt from Number 10.
Who funds Penny Mordaunt?
Penny Mordaunt’s biggest donor is Terence Mordaunt, co-owner of Bristol Port, both as an individual (£34,600 since 2003) and via his company First Corporate Consultants (£20,000 since 2019). Despite the common surname, they are no relation. He is from the Surrey branch of the Mordaunts, and she from the Irish branch. It was her grandfather, Edward Patrick Mordaunt who settled in England. One of his ancestors, for whom he was named, was a local hero in Monamolin, county Wexford, having been imprisoned and unjustly stripped of his land during the Land War (1879-1903). His land was given to a Johnson family. While Edward Mordaunt stood up to and resisted this interloping Johnson, Penny Mordaunt did not stand up to our disgraced prime minister Boris Johnson. While dozens of ministers around her were resigning from his corrupt administration, she stayed in place, despite her role not being essential for the day to day running of the UK.
Returning to Terence Mordaunt… Besides being one of the top donors to the VoteLeave campaign in 2016, he is a former chair and now a trustee of Global Warming Policy Forming (GWPF). This is a global warming denial campaign group set up by former conservative chancellor Lord Lawson to “advise” MPs. One of the known funders of the group, Australian hedge fund manager Michael Hintze, whom Boris Johnson plans to install in the House of Lords, is also one of Penny Mordaunt’s donors (£3,000). So much for COP26 and commitment to Net-Zero. This wannabe prime minister’s links to prominent climate change deniers is alarming.
What is Penny Mordaunt’s voting record like?
In a nutshell, Penny Mordaunt’s voting record is low on compassion. She has consistently voted against raising benefits in line with inflation, while voting for reduction of welfare. She voted for the bedroom tax, against free school meals for the children of the poorest families during school holidays, and against the VAT cut on energy bills. Contrast this with one of the South-West’s MPs, Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris who voted in favour of extending free school meals and who lost the whip for voting with Labour on the VAT cut on energy bills. Now that’s leadership.
Additionally, Penny Mordaunt tends to vote against measures to prevent climate change, greater democracy (e.g. against an elected House of Lords, but for ripping up parliamentary rules, standards and processes to save the corrupt MP Owen Paterson) and job creation for young people. In general terms, her political philosophy could be described as pro-libertarian vulture capitalism, as advocated by followers of disgraced former US President Donald Trump, a man she wishes to emulate and praises in her 2021 book, “Greater Britain after the Storm”.
What else should worry us?
As a back-bencher, Penny Mordaunt was a member of the European Research Group (ERG), the taxpayer funded party within a party that pushes an extreme Eurosceptic and authoritarian agenda. It was in favor of a “WTO” Brexit, for example, which we know from the Cabinet’s “Yellowhammer” scenario would have been even more damaging and destructive than the Brexit Johnson ultimately (half) delivered. The group backs the shameful legislation proposed by Liz Truss that would allow the British government to break international law, putting at risk the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), peace in Northern Ireland and our standing in the international community. They pursue a “pure” Brexit, which is not only incapable of ever being delivered, but which would be severely harmful to our country if it ever was. Their latest pet project is leaving the European Court of Human Rights, the brainchild of Winston Churchill, which is entirely separate to the EU and indeed pre-dates it.
More recently there have been whispers against Penny Mordaunt’s competence as a minister. Unelected bureaucrat Lord Frost launched an extraordinary broadside against her, saying that he had to ask the prime minister to have her removed because she was so useless negotiating with the EU – this from a man who negotiated what he told us was a wonderful Brexit deal, only to later resign and campaign to have that same deal torn up. Disgraced former cabinet minister Damian Green, who is managing Tom Tugendhat’s tilt at the top job, came to her defence, saying she was an excellent minister when she worked for him at the Department of Work and Pensions. That would be when, as disabilities minister, she “oversaw one of the most expensive, cruel benefits cock-ups ever, in which the DWP rewrote the law without consulting its own Social Security Advisory Committee, so that 220,000 people would not get higher disability benefits,” as Rachel Morris described it.
While Lord Frost lacks all credibility, senior Whitehall officials have said that she has been so focused on her leadership bid this past six months that she has neglected her job, forcing other ministers to double up and cover her duties. That may not speak to incompetence, but it certainly shows her to be self-serving, caring more about her career than the damage being done every day to our country under Boris Johnson. It is perhaps significant that she has not been endorsed by her boss, Anne Marie Trevelyan (who backs Tom Tugendhat), nor her colleagues at the Department of International Trade Ranil Jayawardena and Andrew Griffiths (who support Liz Truss), nor even Jeremy Hunt, whom she seconded the 2019 Tory leadership contest and was subsequently fired from her cabinet post as a result.
It is clear then, that there is more to Penny Mordaunt than her very polished PR would have us believe. With her slippery relationship with the truth, her authoritarian ideology, her strong links to climate science deniers, her horrendous voting record and her abject failure to take a stand against this flailing government, it is difficult not to conclude that she is no more fit for the top job in British politics than Boris Johnson was. Indeed, she is every bit as much a “continuity Boris Johnson” candidate as Liz Truss is. While one Twitter user dubbed her “Marine Le Penny”, another described her as “Boris Johnson with a clean pair of knickers and without a hangover”.
We don’t need more of the same. We need a radical change in Number 10 Downing Street. Trumpist Penny Mordaunt is not the answer. If you are in a constituency with a Tory MP, be sure to write to them and tell them that.