Penny Mordaunt ready to run for UK's top job, offering steady leadership

Colourful and ambitious PM hopeful becomes first to announce a bid in social media post

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After announcing her bid to become PM, Penny Mordaunt expressed hope she could take on Britain's top job with what she termed a “keep calm and carry on” approach.

On Friday, Ms Mordaunt officially threw her hat into the ring, to little surprise from political commentators. In a post on social media, she said she wanted a “fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest”.

The MP was a little known figure outside Westminster before the start of the year, but grew in standing after finishing third behind Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak in the race to succeed Boris Johnson.

Following the result, she opted to back Ms Truss and was rewarded with a role in the new UK Cabinet, taking up the reins as Commons leader.

She also raised eyebrows with her choice of words while answering a question on Ms Truss’s behalf days before her downfall, as she told MPs that “the prime minister is not under a desk” dodging scrutiny, and then dismissed suggestions there had been a “coup” to remove her boss.

Asked in the chamber before Ms Truss’s resignation on the state of the government, Ms Mordaunt said: “I am going to keep calm and carry on — and I would suggest everyone else do the same.”

Ms Mordaunt, 49, a former Royal Navy reservist who has held several senior ministerial roles, is not among the front-runners to succeed Ms Truss, according to recent polls of Tory party members.

But such contests are notoriously unpredictable, and with a range of politicians from different factions of the ruling party possibly set to run, political commentators say few contenders can be discounted.

She will inevitably be tied to the Truss premiership to some extent, as she served in the Cabinet during the PM’s tumultuous time in office.

However she was hardly conspicuous in her loyalty following the market chaos that occurred during Ms Truss's tenure, which at one stage threatened to trigger a financial crisis. At a Tory party conference earlier this month, she made it clear she believed benefits should rise in line with inflation, despite Ms Truss repeatedly refusing to guarantee the boost.

Long before she made a bid to replace Mr Johnson, let alone his successor, Ms Mordaunt had been tipped as a potential challenger for the Tory crown.

Though her time in office was short, she became the first woman to serve as defence secretary. Mr Johnson ultimately reshuffled and she was pushed into less high-profile roles.

That all changed after she lost out to Ms Truss in the parliamentary stage of the race to replace Mr Johnson in the summer.

Her initial bid for the top job triggered some excitement, as colleagues rallied behind a fresh face to lead the Conservatives.

But her dearth of ministerial experience at that stage became a weakness that her rivals sought to exploit, even if she appeared to remain a popular choice among the party membership.

She will now be able to cite her short tenure as Commons leader as she sets her sights on Downing Street once more.

Born in Torquay in Devon, Ms Mordaunt is the daughter of a paratrooper and a special education teacher.

Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 15 and her father was diagnosed with cancer when she was a teenager.

A University of Reading graduate, she worked on George W Bush’s presidential campaigns and was a Conservative Party staffer during William Hague’s leadership.

Elected in the Portsmouth North constituency in 2010, one of her first claims to fame was an appearance on reality TV diving show Splash in 2014.

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In 2013, she gave a House of Commons speech in which she squeezed in repeated references to a rude word in a speech about poultry welfare — said to be part of a bet.

An ardent Leaver, during the 2016 European Union referendum campaign, she faced criticism after claiming that the UK would not be able to stop Turkey from joining the bloc.

That claim came back to haunt her during the campaign to replace Mr Johnson, but she doubled down, saying: “There is a provision for a veto but we could not have used it because David Cameron gave an undertaking that he would support their accession and having given that undertaking to a Nato country, he would not have been able to walk away.”

It was not the only part of her record that faced scrutiny, with some Tory MPs accusing Ms Mordaunt of being “too woke” on issues of trans rights and self-identification.

Deploying a decades-old line from Margaret Thatcher — “every prime minister needs a Willie” — to fend off some of those questions prompted a few laughs but little respite from opponents.

Former Brexit minister Lord Frost, who backed Ms Truss over the summer, went as far as to label Ms Mordaunt “absent on parade” when he worked with her on post-Brexit negotiations last year.

For her own part, she suggested those attacks were attempts to block her from reaching the ballot — and that in the run-off for the second leg of the contest, her unimpeachable popularity would see her through to Downing Street regardless of whom she might face in the final round.

Updated: October 23, 2022, 10:52 AM