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Penny Mordaunt: low-key ministerial veteran seeks the spotlight

Penny Mordaunt has held nine ministerial positions in eight government departments, including three cabinet posts. Yet until this summer’s Conservative leadership contest, when she came third, she was an unfamiliar figure to most of the British public.

Now she is making another bid to become prime minister, touting her “fresh face” as a virtue that makes her a clean pair of hands.

“When it comes to experience, she is probably up there,” said Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight.

Her biggest jobs to date have included international development secretary and — briefly — defence secretary under Theresa May.

One former cabinet minister described Mordaunt, who is the first candidate to officially enter the race to become the next PM, as a “popular” figure in the Tory party who generated plenty of useful ideas. Supporters contrast her “emotional intelligence” with outgoing prime minister Liz Truss’s sometimes wooden public manner.

In a campaign video released on Saturday she sought to position herself as a down-to-earth political campaigner who understood ordinary people’s concerns about the NHS and the cost of living crisis.

But a former colleague told the FT that Mordaunt had a “woeful” grasp of detail and had “failed to impress the civil servants who worked under her”.

Lord Frost, former Brexit minister, has suggested that she was not firm enough when she was involved in Brexit negotiations: “I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary.”

George Freeman, her campaign manager, said Mordaunt was the ideal figure to put an end to the “soap opera” of recent years. “She has what it takes to bring the unity, stability and economic responsibility we need in 10 Downing Street,” he said.

Mordaunt, 49, read philosophy at Reading University and worked in public relations for the Conservative party and for George W Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.

She entered Parliament in 2010 as MP for Portsmouth North. In 2016 she campaigned with Vote Leave, when she made an inaccurate claim that Turkey was about to join the European Union and could not be vetoed by the UK.

Launching her candidacy on Friday, she said she had been urged to stand by colleagues wanting “a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest”.

During the summer leadership campaign she promoted a platform of low taxes, personal responsibility and a small state.

Unlike Truss, however, she identified only a couple of tax cuts that she would make as prime minister including a reduction in fuel duty. That pledge was widely mocked after she claimed that it would be “self-funding” because it would generate greater demand.

On social issues she is seen as a liberal: In her 2020 book “Greater: Britain After The Storm” she objected to “casual racism, homophobia, white privilege” in an old BBC sitcom.

Some senior Labour figures believe that she could narrow the party’s historic poll lead over the ruling Conservatives. “Penny is the candidate we fear most as an electoral prospect,” said one aide to leader Keir Starmer. “She’s untainted and I can see her doing very well with voters. All the others have a lot of baggage.”

During the EU referendum campaign in 2016 Mordaunt inaccurately claimed that Turkey was about to join the bloc © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

On Saturday Mordaunt was trailing bookies’ favourite Rishi Sunak, whose supporters claimed he had hit the 100 nominations from MPs which candidates need in order to make it on to the ballot paper for Monday’s vote. Mordaunt has 21 publicly declared backers, while former prime minister Boris Johnson has 43.

It will be crucial for her to win over the third of the parliamentary Conservative party who were first elected in 2019; her recent mid-level ministerial roles in Boris Johnson’s government gave her little chance to shine in their eyes.

But the political turmoil of Truss’s premiership has brought opportunity for Mordaunt, who is currently the Leader of the House of Commons. Shortly before Truss’s time in power reached its abrupt end earlier this week, she was asked to stand in for the PM to answer a question in the House of Commons.

Mordaunt apologised for the prime minister’s absence, said Truss had been detained on “urgent business” and faced down loud barracking from the Opposition benches.

Robert Hayward, a Tory peer, said: “Most of the new intake had never seen her dealing with a major issue of state under pressure, the majority view from the 2019 people was that they were really impressed. She was unfazed, relaxed, not flustered, quite commanding, she has a strong presence in her demeanour and her spoken word.”

In the middle of the political chaos, Mordaunt appeared at ease as she shrugged off a barrage of hostile questions. “The prime minister is not under a desk,” she replied to one MP.

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