The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Penny Mordaunt could be the next U.K. prime minister. Few know who she is.

Former British Government Minister Penny Mordaunt leaves the Cinnamon Club in London after launching her campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party. (Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
6 min

LONDON — In the zesty but odd and insular contest to replace Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister, an unlikely figure has emerged among the top runners: Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister who was briefly the country’s first female defense secretary, who in her youth served as a magician’s assistant, and later appeared on a reality TV show and did a short stint as head of foreign press for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.

On Thursday, Conservative Party lawmakers winnowed down their list of contenders for the premiership to five, with former chancellor and finance minister Rishi Sunak on top with 101 votes, followed by Mordaunt with 83 and Foreign Minister Liz Truss with 67.

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The strong showings by Mordaunt and Truss make it more likely a woman will be among the final two, who will then campaign to seek votes from the 200,000 dues-paying Tory party members — a process often described as “more of a selection than election.”

Until now, Mordaunt, 49, was not a household name in Britain, far from it.

In recent snap polling, most respondents could not name her when shown a photo.

It’s fair to say most of the general public has never heard of her.

When Johnson ran in 2019, there was already a string of biographies written about the flamboyant former London mayor and Brexiteer — alongside millions of pages of commentary, plus Johnson’s own writings over two decades as a newspaper columnist and magazine editor.

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Mordaunt did write a book, too, called “Greater: Britain After the Storm,” described by the publisher as “about restoring national pride and positive politics.” It has soared in recent days onto the Amazon UK best seller list. Former Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair blurbed it: “Uplifting and highly readable.”

The British press and her fellow Tories — both friend and foe — are rushing to supply their own details to Mordaunt’s biography.

David Frost, a former Brexit minister, launched a scathing attack on the politician who was once his deputy. “I am quite surprised at where she is in this leadership race,” he said in an interview with TalkTV. “She was my deputy — notionally, more than really — in the Brexit talks last year.”

Frost said, “She wasn’t fully accountable, she wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was. This became such a problem that, after six months, I had to ask the prime minister to move her on and find somebody else to support me.”

Mordaunt’s team responded that she “had nothing but respect” for Frost and that “Penny will always stick up for Brexit and always has.”

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The race to replace Johnson remains highly uncertain. Early favorites for party leader often go on to flop. The candidates have yet to take part in televised debates; the first is scheduled for Friday.

There could be mischief making in the days ahead, with Conservative lawmakers working to prevent specific candidates from progressing to the further rounds of secret balloting.

“It’s very unpredictable,” said Ben Page, global chief executive of Ipsos, a market research and polling company, describing the contest.

But Mordaunt does have momentum.

Among the candidates, she gained the greatest number of supporters between the first and second rounds of votes.

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And when Defense Secretary Ben Wallace decided not to run, she overtook the field as the runaway favorite with Conservative Party members, who will pick the winner in the last stage of the contest.

One poll suggested that if she could make it to the final two, she’d win. She’d be Britain’s third female prime minister, following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

Yet even in Tory circles, she is something of a vague figure. “She’s a bit of a mystery, to all of us,” Matthew Parris, a former Conservative lawmaker who is now a political columnist, told the BBC.

“In her favor, she has an attractive personality, she’s obviously fun, she sounds like a good sport. On the other side of the balance, the thing she has to got to rebut are words like ‘flaky’ or ‘politics at the shallow end.’ She was once a magician’s assistant — you can’t cut the deficit in half.”

That job was one she had when she was younger, trying to help her family make ends meet. Her mother died of cancer when Mordaunt was 15.

She became a member of Parliament in 2010 and served for 85 days as defense secretary before she was sacked by Johnson for backing his rival in the 2019 leadership contest.

She is a Royal Navy reservist.

In this race, she has pitched herself as a Brexiteer who will return the party to its roots. The Conservative Party, she said at a recent event, had recently “lost its sense of self.”

“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,” she said, describing the former Beatle, now 80, playing his new material at a youth concert, when what most wanted to hear was “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back.”

The tunes the Tories want to hear, Mordaunt said, included the words: “low tax, small state, personal responsibility. We need to get back to that.”

Her leadership bid got off to a bumpy start, though, when she was forced to edit her campaign video several times over — cutting out images of Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend; British sprinter Jonnie Peacock, who asked for his image not to be used in the film; and Jo Cox, a murdered Labour minister whose family raised concerns to the campaign.

Mordaunt herself didn’t appear in the video.

Page, of Ipsos, said her relatively low-level status worked for and against her. She was never in Johnson’s Cabinet and thus isn’t saddled with baggage from his administration they way the others are. At the same time, she can’t point to the same level of experience as Sunak or Truss.

“She has humor, which the British value,” said Page.

He referenced how once Mordaunt, having lost a bet to Royal Navy colleagues, gave a speech in the House of Commons about farming while managing to slip in the word “cock” several times.

He said her compelling backstory could go over well with the public.

“She hasn’t had a completely privileged, affluent childhood, so she might have a bit more of a common touch — which is always a bit of a problem for the Conservative Party. The British like an underdog.”

Her challenge, Page said, will be convincing people of “her competence in office.”