LONDON — The shock favourite to switch Boris Johnson as British prime minister is known as after a legendary World Warfare II battleship — the HMS Penelope, downed by a German U-boat after quite a few shut shaves.
However those that have labored with Penny Mordaunt inside Whitehall examine her as an alternative to a namesake figurine she used to hold from division to division by way of a lot of her — comparatively low-key — ministerial profession.
Mordaunt was recognized for displaying in her ministerial places of work a big mannequin of Nineteen Sixties puppet Girl Penelope, a personality from the cult British children’ TV sequence Thunderbirds. Girl Penelope was a London-based undercover agent, famed for her stylish outfits and her pink Rolls Royce — outfitted with machine weapons and bullet-proof glass.
The doll was a present from the British Marines when Mordaunt turned minister for the armed forces in 2015, partly as a mark of respect for her personal army background.
“She does have a little bit of Girl Penelope about her,” one present colleague stated. “She’s glamorous, however she means enterprise — and may need weapons hidden within the automotive.”
Mordaunt has actually proven her better-known Conservative rivals that she means enterprise over current days.
Previous to this week she was finest recognized for donning a swimsuit in 2014 and painfully botching a excessive dive as a part of the fact TV present ‘Splash!’, and for a infamous double entendre-ridden speech she gave in parliament after shedding a wager together with her Navy buddies. She can be the one serving MP recognized to have labored as a magician’s assistant, albeit within the distant previous.
However Mordaunt has develop into a family title in a single day after supportive colleagues and admiring Conservative members put rocket boosters below her outdoors bid to switch Johnson in Downing Avenue.
She is at the moment in second place to former Chancellor Rishi Sunak after two rounds of voting amongst Tory MPs, who’re tasked with whittling down the candidates to a closing two forward of a vote by social gathering members. And she or he would comfortably beat each certainly one of her probably opponents in that closing head-to-head poll, a sequence of polls have recommended.
“It’d end up that that was a motivation,” the previous minister stated. “If in her make-up there’s a ‘You don’t give a fuck about me, so I’m going to point out what I’m product of’ angle, I wouldn’t be stunned.”
One former minister who labored with Mordaunt argued Johnson might have unwittingly set her on track to succeed him when he abruptly sacked her as protection secretary in a “vindictive” act upon taking workplace in 2019. Former aides to Johnson insist she was merely not rated extremely sufficient by the brand new regime to retain a high-level position — though most in Westminster assume the previous PM dumped her for backing his management rival, Jeremy Hunt.
He added: “There’s an excellent drive and willpower in her, and other people miss that at their peril.”
The political battlefield
It’s true that Mordaunt has spent a lifetime in politics battling for causes near her coronary heart — and profitable.
Her actuality TV look raised sufficient cash to avoid wasting her native lido from closure within the south coast metropolis of Portsmouth; she pulled strings to assist save Portsmouth Soccer Membership from chapter; and he or she publicly harangued Whitehall officers to cancel a neighborhood energy mission — which, certainly, was in the end canceled.
“She was dropping off letters and petitions out the entrance of the division whereas the mission was within the planning section,” stated one official on the division for enterprise, vitality and industrial technique. “I’m unsure how she acquired away with it as a minister.”
Mordaunt additionally fought as a part of the Vote Depart marketing campaign for Brexit, which triumphed in 2016 with Johnson at its helm.
Afterwards, it was Mordaunt, and never Johnson, who stood up in Cupboard and fought hardest to dam a deal that will have left the U.Ok. contained in the EU customs union, in keeping with her supporter and former Brexit negotiator, David Davis.
“Within the Chequers assembly, she was the best and most medical at delivering an end result,” Davis stated, recalling the 2018 summit on the prime minister’s countryside residence the place Theresa Could tried and did not promote her deal to her high staff.
When he and Johnson later stop over the Chequers plan, Davis claims he thought Mordaunt so efficient that she ought to stay in publish. “I instructed her: ‘Don’t resign,’” he stated. “We want individuals such as you to battle the nook inside.”
However Mordaunt has but to be examined — and even correctly scrutinized — on the very highest stage, and it’s clear that not all previous or current colleagues fee her extremely.
Some within the Division for Worldwide Commerce, the place she now serves as a junior minister, declare she shirks her duties, focusing solely on a restricted variety of points she cares about and hiding in her parliamentary places of work to plot her path to the management.
One official was desperate to level out that new releases detailing abroad ministerial journey present Mordaunt didn’t make a single abroad journey within the first quarter of 2022, regardless of her trade-focused temporary. She has earned the nickname “Penny Dormant” amongst less-than-generous members of her staff.
Strikingly her boss, Worldwide Commerce Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is backing a rival, Tom Tugendhat, for the Conservative management, whereas one other commerce minister, Ranil Jayawardena, is supporting Liz Truss. It appears none of her closest colleagues assume she is as much as the job of prime minister.
It appears none of her closest colleagues assume she is as much as the job of prime minister | Jack Taylor/Getty Photographs
A former boss in one other division, David Frost, who was an in depth adviser to Johnson and holds outsized affect in Conservative circles, lashed out at Mordaunt this week on stay TV. He complained she wasn’t “totally accountable or at all times seen” inside their division; was not often throughout the element of her temporary; and even questioned her dedication to the Brexit trigger.
Others disagree that Mordaunt is a shirker. One Whitehall official who labored alongside her on the Cupboard Workplace stated not being seen didn’t imply she wasn’t doing her job nicely.
“She would get by way of all of the work in her ministerial field, and do what she wanted to,” the particular person stated. “However she was demoted from a Cupboard minister to random junior roles. It’s no shock if she wasn’t motivated to do numerous schmoozing and defending Downing Avenue within the media.”
A closed e-book
Mordaunt’s rocky management launch stood in stark distinction to the slick campaigns launched by clearly-prepared rivals corresponding to Sunak.
Her launch video was considerably lackluster and wanted controversial footage enhancing out following complaints instantly after it was launched. She had no press spokesperson in place a number of days after Johnson stop, and continues to be within the strategy of constructing out a correct marketing campaign staff.
Her marketing campaign is now being chaired by one other former Vote Depart ally, Andrea Leadsom, who stood for chief in 2016 and is now being tipped by some as Mordaunt’s choose for chancellor.
One factor Mordaunt just isn’t missing is a blueprint for the challenges going through post-Brexit Britain. She co-wrote a e-book with Chris Lewis (an adviser who dubs himself “the Grand Enchilada”) named “Higher: Britain After the Storm.” The pair reportedly arrived by way of helicopter to advertise the e-book at a summer time literature pageant.
Their work acquired rave endorsements from a stunning forged of characters, together with Labour former Prime Minister Tony Blair, singer Elton John, screenwriter Richard Curtis and businessman Richard Branson.
But when Mordaunt does develop into prime minister, she’s going to want greater than a e-book to introduce herself to the general public. Polling this week confirmed simply 20 p.c of British individuals knew who she was — little greater than the 12 p.c of people that claimed to learn about a faux MP the pollster had invented as a take a look at case.
For Conservative MPs mulling whether or not to place her on the ultimate poll of two, the query is much less understanding who she is than understanding what she stands for.
“Nobody is aware of Penny nicely,” stated one senior MP nonetheless contemplating whom to help. “Nobody is aware of what she is. She’s a closed e-book.”