Why ex-reality TV star Penny Mordaunt is making a splash in the Tory leadership race

Former navy reservist emerging as dark horse after topping poll of Tory members

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Penny Mordaunt is used taking a leap of faith. Back in 2014, on the ITV diving reality show Splash, she twice attempted a daring back somersault from 7.5m ― only to flunk it on both occasions. The result was an early and rather painful exit, with the then junior minister left less red-faced as red all over.

Fast forward eight years and Britain's current international trade secretary has entered another competition ― only this time she is diving not into the blue depths of an Olympic-sized pool, but head first into the "blue" race to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader.

Thankfully for Ms Mordaunt, 49, her chances of success in this competition appear far more auspicious, with a Conservative Home poll suggesting she is the preferred candidate of Tory members, just ahead of equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and former UK chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Launching her campaign on Sunday with the nifty and nominatively deterministic slogan PM4PM, Miss Mordaunt said she sees leadership as being "less about the leader and a lot more about the ship" ― a direct rebuke to the omnipresent and obtrusive Mr Johnson.

The nautical reference would also have been carefully calibrated by the former navy reservist, aware that links with the military tend to play well with Tories and the country at large.

With her party rocking like a naval vessel on choppy seas after the catalogue of scandals that bedevilled Mr Johnson's premiership ― partygate perhaps the most damaging ― Ms Mordaunt comes with the promise of discipline, rectitude and old-fashioned conservatism.

"Recently, our party has lost its sense of self," she said in the first major speech of her campaign.

"If I can compare it to being in the Glastonbury audience, when Paul McCartney was playing his set ― we indulged all those new tunes, but what we really wanted was the good old stuff that we all knew the words to: low tax, a small state, personal responsibility."

Mordaunt's early years marred by family tragedy

Penny Mordaunt and twin brother James were born in Torquay, Devon in 1973, the children of a former paratrooper and special needs teacher.

They were raised in the southern UK coastal town of Portsmouth from the age of two and enjoyed a blissful childhood until their mother died from breast cancer when they were only 15.

Ms Mordaunt's blue credentials are hard to dispute. Unlike leadership rival and erstwhile Liberal Democrat supporter Liz Truss, she is a lifelong Tory and was head of youth for the Conservative Party at Reading university from where she graduated with a philosophy degree in 1995. While at the same university as a mature student, Ms Mordaunt met Paul Murray, who she married in 1999 but divorced just a year later.

Little is known about Mr Murray or the reasons for the divorce, but Ms Mordaunt has now been in a relationship with classical singer Ian Lyon for many years ― although the pair are yet to tie the knot.

Rise of Portsmouth MP Mordaunt

Prior to entering parliament, Ms Mourdaunt plied her trade in communications in the UK and the US, even playing a prominent role in the presidential campaign of George W Bush as head of foreign press.

She first stood for election in 2005 in Portsmouth. She was unsuccessful but gained redemption five years later in 2010, winning the seat for David Cameron's Tories.

Before becoming international trade minister she held a variety of ministerial positions and two Cabinet roles. Theresa May appointed her secretary of state for international development in 2017 and then in 2019, after the sacking of Gavin Williamson, elevated her to defence secretary.

It was a position she held for only 85 days with Mr Johnson unceremoniously demoting after he became leader of the party later that year ― interpreted by the commentariat at the time as revenge for her backing for rival Jeremy Hunt.

Penny Mordaunt's unifying appeal

All Tory leadership contenders have been clamouring to own the epithet: "the candidate most feared by Labour".

Arguably Ms Mordaunt is in pole position on that front. According to Oddschecker, she currently stands a 37 per cent chance of becoming the next PM, with fellow favourite Rishi Sunak on the same mark.

Ms Mordaunt campaigned for the Vote Leave group during the 2016 Brexit referendum, and in a 2021 delivered an impassioned speech defending it.

"Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community. Or an act of self-harm or one that requires us to be punished. It is a massive opportunity to anyone who believes in democracy and the power of trade as a force for good in the world."

While Rishi Sunak is also a staunch Brexiteer, he is a far more divisive figure among the Conservative right, seen by Johnson acolytes as the Brutus behind the prime minister's downfall. He is also associated with fiscal incontinence, raising taxes to their highest level since the Second World War. While many in the party forgive him the hike given the extraordinary pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, many see his record as being distinctly "unconservative".

In a recent Telegraph interview, Ms Mordaunt set great stall by a far more conventionally "conservative" approach: the politics of pragmatism ― an approach which, according to PoliticsHome, means she also appeals to the Tory "self-styled" who associate her with fealty both to David Cameron and Theresa May.

"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,” she said.

Mordaunt channelling Maggie on economy

In a self-penned piece in same paper, beloved of the Tory heartlands, she sought to cast herself as the fiscal alternative to Mr Sunak.

"Whilst I will cut taxes, I will pioneer sound money, with a key fiscal rule to ensure that debt as a percentage of GDP falls over time."

She has also said she will introduce an immediate 50 per cent cut in VAT on fuel until at least April 2023, funded by increased VAT revenues as a result of inflation, and raise basic and middle earners' tax thresholds in line with inflation.

One thing that she will not be offering is a rise in wages for the ordinary worker, and like all candidates is attempting to give the best impression of de facto Tory deity and scourge of miners, Margaret Thatcher

"Our economy is faced with the twin problems of soaring inflation and falling confidence ― with a real risk of recession ahead," she wrote.

"My government will focus on getting inflation under control, working closely with the independent Bank of England. We cannot risk spiralling wages and prices that lead to lower standards of living and loss of jobs."

Mr Sunak has vowed to take a similar position, but unlike Ms Mordaunt he is one of the richest people in Britain and thus will find it far harder to tell the electorate to go without.

Ms Mordaunt is not impregnable, however, and one area of potential weakness is the culture wars. Unlike the plain-speaking Kemi Badenoch, who takes a fiercely traditionalist view on issues such as trans rights and abortion, Ms Mordaunt is a campaigner for both, once describing abortion laws in Northern Ireland "as the most appalling thing".

Penny Mordaunt and the Gulf

There is little to judge Ms Mordaunt on regarding her stance on the Gulf ― although her cultural views are certainly at odds with prevailing sentiments. But in 2017 she was involved in negotiations with the Saudis to keep open the port of Hodeidah in Yemen.

Her intervention went down well, with a Times source telling the paper it “was the most impressive [performance] they had ever seen from a British government minister”.

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Updated: July 13, 2022, 3:20 PM