Analysis: Tory leader contender was first woman to hold post and is hoping trade and equalities experience will also play in favour
Penny Mordaunt lists her achievements in her 85 days as defence secretary as being the first woman to hold the job – and implementing a pay increase that ensured no serviceman or woman was paid below the living wage.
A note circulated by supporters in her campaign, which has stalled after she lost one vote in the most recent poll, begins with her short time at the Ministry of Defence but relegates her more controversial and simultaneous tenure as equalities minister to sixth on a list of her ministerial jobs.
At defence, her time in office was so brief that aside from getting the job in the first place, the principal highlight is deemed to be the award of an above-inflation pay rise, worth 6% to junior forces personnel.
Mordaunt had little time to leave a mark because she was abruptly sacked in July 2019 by Boris Johnson when he became prime minister. The ousted minister had supported his main rival, Jeremy Hunt, and was replaced by longtime Johnson backer Ben Wallace.
One former MoD source said a complaint from the department was that Mordaunt often focused on her other role as equalities minister, during which time she presented a detailed plan – already voted on in principle by MPs – to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.
At equalities, between April 2018 and July 2019, Mordaunt lists the release of a gender equalities roadmap, summarising the government’s existing aspirations for women’s rights and opportunities. But she does not list a more controversial 2018 consultation on a possible reform of the Gender Recognition Act, and how it could be made easier to transition.
Leaked documents over the weekend suggested ministers during her time in post had supported the removal of at least one of two medical requirements needed by people to change their gender.
Mordaunt, however, described such claims as “toxic politics” and “smears” fuelled by rivals. Ultimately, no change in policy emerged while Mordaunt was in post, and the idea of reform was ditched by her successor, Liz Truss.
Another ex-senior Whitehall official said she was a minister who “doesn’t have strong views” which was “unhelpful if you want clear high-level direction”. However, they added, she was refreshingly honest about what she knew and what she did not.
Some of this may be described as snobbery. Allies of Mordaunt say she is “competent and good at the dispatch box” and that “the public will warm to her” if she were to get into Downing Street after seeing off her remaining Tory rivals.
The principal crisis during her tenure at defence was the threat posed to western oil tankers by Iran in the Gulf. After she left office, Mordaunt said she had asked the former prime minister Theresa May five times for an emergency Cobra meeting to discuss the worsening situation before one was held.
On the fourth occasion, Mordaunt subsequently told MPs inquiring into the subject that she had made the request in writing so there was an “audit trail”. She feared, she added, a British ship would be seized. A few days later, the Stena Impero, a British-flagged oil tanker, was detained by Iran for two months.
Out of government, Mordaunt supported a campaign to create new emojis to help call out rude or bullying behaviour online. She was then appointed paymaster general in the Treasury in February 2020, and launched a consultation on a post-Covid national resilience strategy.
A list of ministerial achievements says she “rewrote” the strategy, although it has yet to come out, months after the consultation closed last December. A junior trade job followed in September, in which like many other junior ministerial jobs there appeared to be little to do.
Mordaunt has responsibility for negotiating trade agreements with individual US states, helping sign off a deal with Indiana in May. But her boss, the trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, accused her on Monday morning of being unavailable to carry out ministerial duties, leaving others to “pick up the pieces” because she been “focused on preparing her leadership campaign”.