Allison Pearson: It is perfectly clear that Penny Mordaunt must be our next prime minister

Penny Mordaunt - DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images
Penny Mordaunt - DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images
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The sun may be blazing down, but winter is coming. Tory leadership candidates strut their stuff, with many claiming they want to restore integrity and - goodness gracious! - even Conservatism to a government in which they conveniently forget they played a major role. Now, MPs and party members must urgently ask themselves two questions. Which of the contenders has the strength and the strategy to steer a course through the cost of living storm? And which candidate could have broad enough appeal to stop the rot, be popular with young and old, male and female, right and left, and win the 2024 general election?

We need to be brutally honest. The chances of the Conservatives seeing off the threat of a Lab-Lib-SNP coalition of smugitude in two years’ time are remote. Unless the Government makes a completely fresh start that the public can believe in, a 77-seat majority will fall like a house of cards as voters take their revenge for tax increases and brutal energy and fuel bills larded on a bilious serving of sleaze.

Honestly, I want to scream and dash my head against the nearest brick wall when I hear that “Tory grandees” are backing Rishi Sunak. Have they got a death wish? What party, in the midst of the worst fall in living standards for 40 years, would elect a multi-millionaire ex-banker as its leader? How deplorably tone-deaf. If we do that, we will deserve the kicking we will surely get.

It’s going to take some kind of magic to turn this doomed ship around. Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to report that, joining the list of candidates on Sunday, is an individual who has personal experience of both magic and assuming command of a warship should the occasion so demand.

“Well, I’m certainly trained to captain a ship,” says Penny Mordaunt with a smile that suddenly lights up her concerned, thoughtful face. “But if they’re reduced to calling me up, Allison, I’m afraid we’ll know that it’s serious!”

Penny Mordaunt has served in the military as a Royal Navy reservist
Penny Mordaunt has served in the military as a Royal Navy reservist

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. For me, it is perfectly clear that Penny Mordaunt must be our next prime minister. Who is better qualified to put the wind up our enemies? Or steady the ship of state? A Royal Naval reservist (Honorary Captain of the MCM2 Squadron, and still on active service at sea). A person who wasn’t born into Conservatism but who chose it as her creed, and believes in it fiercely. A doughty campaigner who managed to turn her Labour-voting home town of Portsmouth true blue in 2010 after suffering defeat at the first attempt (she still keeps the note of encouragement she received from Margaret Thatcher on her mantelpiece). A child who had to grow up with almost unbearable speed when her mother was dying of cancer and then her father got cancer as well. Penny took over the running of the home, becoming carer to her sick parents and two brothers Edward and James (her twin), doing the washing for the entire family in the bath “because we didn’t have a washing machine”. She was only 15.

What were the politics in your home, Penny? “The politics of pragmatism. Your mother dies, you get on with it. Your father loses his job, you get on with it. You take responsibility. You work and you keep on working. You protect and fight for those you love.”

I get tearful when she tells me that, but 49-year-old Mordaunt has a notable lack of self-pity, a characteristic of those who had to perform a caring role in their youth. “Mum was wonderful, so kind, and very funny,” she says. “But, as she got worse, I had to take over. The experience of doing that, with not much money and dealing with services that didn’t work, certainly had an impact on me. It makes you think about your own life and what you want to achieve with it.”

How did someone from her background end up a Tory? “I always say: ‘Everyone is a Conservative, they just haven’t realised it yet!’” she jokes. Growing up in Portsmouth, she says she was “surrounded by so many people doing their duty, pulling together at times of national crisis”. Penny was nine years old when the Falklands War started. “That taught me what my nation was about, that we stood up to bullies, that we don’t need a role in the world, we just had to be ourselves.”

Unsurprisingly, Penny Mordaunt believes the Armed Forces have a key role to play in our national life. “Spending needs to increase as we committed to do in our last manifesto. We need to finish the organisational reform at the MoD. Technological advances can provide huge efficiency savings, but I worry about lowering manning – at home, we lean on them so much, let alone their commitments around the world.” Mordaunt is proposing a new civil defence force – Standby Battalion – to take the pressure off the regular army in emergencies. It could employ veterans while offering training opportunities to young people whom Mordaunt is acutely aware have had a raw deal during the pandemic.

A product of the military’s can-do ethic, she wants to inject its discipline, culture and pragmatism into the public sector. “The Armed Forces get things done, which is why we are always asking them.” Mordaunt too gets stuff done. Using her naval knowledge, she has “spent a long time” out on the water in the Med mapping migration routes. “We’re going to shut down the whole boats issue for good.”

When I wonder what would be the guiding principle of a Mordaunt government, she answers without hesitation: “The team. Teamwork is everything. We’ve had a model for so long that is about one infallible leader that will make it all OK. They’re supposedly superhuman and visionary. It’s a massively egotistical model and it’s failing everywhere. All my life, it’s always been teams that solve the problems. The team we need to build is a national one. It starts with how we change Whitehall and the Conservative Party, but we have to open up opportunities for everyone to help. That is my frustration with politics. So many individuals and organisations want to help and have solutions. We need to unite this country around some national missions.”

A passionate Brexiteer (unlike the, ahem, newly-converted among her leadership rivals), Mordaunt gives Boris Johnson full credit for getting us out of the EU. “It would be wrong not to acknowledge that some good things have been done by him, such as starting to grip the broken rules around asylum and illegal migration.”

That’s pretty generous of her. Keenly aware, I reckon, of the threat posed by the highly capable, industrious and attractive member for Portsmouth North, Boris sacked her as Defence Secretary when he became Prime Minister in July 2019. The first woman to hold that position, Mordaunt’s historic appointment had been warmly welcomed just three months earlier by military leaders chuffed to have someone who actually knew about their field in the role.

“Penny really came into her own as Defence Secretary,” recalls her friend Andrea Leadsom. “Her ministerial team and senior military staff looked up to her as a fine leader.” The two women met when they entered Parliament in 2010 and bonded over a bottle of wine, a shared concern for families, putting the nation first and a belief in the benefits of Brexit. “Penny is a truly likeable person with a great sense of humour and this incredible dry wit. You won’t meet anyone more dedicated. Penny will be a prime minister the whole country can be proud of.”

Having re-entered the Government in February 2020 as Paymaster General, in the 2021 Cabinet reshuffle Mordaunt was made minister of state for trade policy. A move she suspects was designed by her not uncompetitive boss to keep her safely out of the way. “Boris said: ‘You do know you’ll be spending a lot of time abroad in this job.’ And I thought: ‘Hmm, I wonder why that might be!’”

Only two Tory MPs will make it to the membership for a final vote, so the number of endorsements a candidate has really matters. Sunak has the largest number so far, with 27. Mordaunt, who has had a lot less exposure, is in second place with 19. Jealousy and a desire to push a hugely popular woman out of the race early (think Penelope Pitstop rammed by Dick Dastardly in Whacky Races) have already seen some aggressive briefing against Mordaunt.

Charges that she is “woke” have been spread enthusiastically on social media although, in my conversations with her, I encounter a staunch Tory with a firm belief in the family “as the essential core of our society”. But also someone who shows support and sensitivity towards the LGBTQ community (her twin brother is gay), views which chime very strongly with younger voters whom any new Tory leader must try to attract. Maybe she can act as a bridge between the generations? Penny has made common cause with the great Olympian Sharron Davies in her fight to keep swimmers who have gone through male puberty out of female competition.

In a thread on Twitter entitled: “Do I KNOW WHAT A WOMAN IS (Yes I do!),” Penny Mordaunt affirmed a belief in biological sex. “All my life, I’ve fought for gender equality. I’ve stood up for women. I’ve been right alongside them in every major battle. I make sure policy is focussed on them.”

It may not be enough to satisfy her critics who have rarely shown such a passionate interest in the plight of women.

If you have any doubts about whether Mordaunt is up to the job, I suggest you Google: “Penny Mordaunt brutally responds to Angela Rayner in Commons over donation claims.” Labour’s deputy leader has just accused various Tory MPs of being on the take during the pandemic. Mordaunt stands erect at the despatch box, looking like Boadicea crossed with a lioness. No bluster from her, no snide personal attack. Her response is measured, elegant, eloquent and thrillingly brutal. She makes mincemeat of Rayner while, charmingly, wishing the Right Honourable Lady success in her new position. “The greatest bitch-slap in history,” is what one reviewer called it.

Now, imagine that imposing female figure pitted against dreary Starmer and whichever Tim is running the Lib Dems these days. It’s a prospect to lift the Conservative heart.

Oh, and another thing. The Tory leader Labour would fear most is Penny Mordaunt. In the cheap game of Privilege Top Trumps, which they love to play, there would be no more easy jibes about Etonians, Oxbridge, non-doms or investment bankers. Keir Starmer went to a grammar school, Penny Mordaunt went to the local comp. Keir’s father had a prosperous business, Penny’s was a paratrooper who became a teacher. Starmer went to Oxford, Mordaunt went to Reading, a deferred entry because she was still a carer for her family.

Conservative women leaders: Three.

Labour women leaders: Nil.


Penelope Mary Mordaunt was born on March 4 1974 in Torquay to parents John and Jennifer. I’m glad to report she was named after the battleship HMS Penelope. Home was “basic but full of love”. Young Penny loved science, astronomy, the natural world, art (she still paints to relax), dance and Duran Duran’s John Taylor. Prematurely older because of caring responsibilities (“I guess I was born 40”) she didn’t have much use for boyfriends as a teenager. In the sixth form, she got a job as a conjurer’s assistant “because I needed money and it was a way of earning a reasonable amount in the few hours I had each week”. The magician, Will Ayling, who was president of the Magic Circle, was “a bit of a legend. We did army camps, posh hotels.” When Penny Mordaunt first went to Tory Party conference in Bournemouth, the fringe venues were familiar. “I’d been sawn in half in most of them!”

After her father remarried and her brothers no longer needed looking after, she took a gap year and went to work in a Romanian orphanage. “That’ll give you perspective on life in Britain. It also taught me how horrific certain political, ‘Socialist’ ideologies were. I’ve never forgotten.”

She took a philosophy degree at Reading University and then went into public relations, before starting her political career. “I was married early (to Paul Murray). The marriage failed. We were both too young. I don’t feel the need to be in a relationship, I’m pretty self-reliant.”

I brace myself to ask Mordaunt the next question, but I know people will be wondering. “You never had children?”

“This is never a question levelled at men!” she hits back at me, adding: “I love children and would love to have been a mum. But it just never happened for me. It’s sad, but I think a lot of people are in the same situation. As someone said recently: ‘Them’s the breaks.’”

It’s not easy getting her to talk about herself. “Self-description and navel-gazing, it’s not really something I do, Allison. I guess people would say that I’m organised, disciplined and hard-working. I hope they’d say I was considerate, kind, patient and good company. I’ve been known to swear. I’ve been in long-term relationships. None have worked out. There’s not much that mixes with what I do.”

What she does is about to test her to the limit. In the last few hours, Penny Mordaunt has announced some policies which seem pretty in touch with the mood of the people she hopes to lead. A 50 per cent VAT cut on fuel, so parents can fill up the tank to take the kids to school, people can get to work and companies can afford to have materials delivered. Rishi Sunak has been raking that money in. Raising tax thresholds for basic and middle earners by the rate of inflation. Policies for normal people like the normal girl from Portsmouth.

The leadership election already feels as if it could turn dirty. Is Mordaunt worried? “You can only control your own team,” she says. “We will campaign in the way that we will govern. If people haven’t cottoned onto the fact that this election is about values then I pity, not fear, them. We will be reserving our attacks for Labour and other opponents.”

Remember, Penny Mordaunt has had knives thrown at her before. The conjurer’s assistant lived to tell the tale. When we spoke, I asked her what it was like captaining a ship in stormy seas. “So, as the captain, you remain separate but in a strategic role, anticipating any situational difficulty. You have the ops room where they are manning the weapons. Each part of the ship gets on with its job. It’s a good image of how Cabinet government should work. Each minister of state empowered to get on with the job, not Number 10 operating as a government unto itself.

“I am the captain of my ship and the master of my fate.” Penny Mordaunt, resilient, enigmatic, resolute, makes me think of those stirring words.

But are you sure, Allison? Are you sure she’s the one? I can hear you asking me. No, not 100 per cent, of course not. We can’t be certain what will happen when the jump leads of power are attached to an individual. But I think that, if called to serve, she would do her utmost.

PM for PM? You have to admit it has a certain ring to it.