Penny Mordaunt’s greatest strength and biggest weakness are one and the same: No one really knows who she is.
As the sole rival to Rishi Sunak in the final stages of the race to succeed Liz Truss as British prime minister, that’s about to change.
Being a relatively unknown lawmaker in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has its advantages. Whereas other members of parliament have struggled to distance themselves from the failure of previous governments, Mordaunt has been able to paint herself as something of an outsider.
But the truth is that Mordaunt, an MP since 2010, held a number of ministerial positions before being elevated to defense secretary in the last, painful few months of Theresa May’s government.
Running on the slogan PM4PM during the Conservative leadership campaign this summer, Mordaunt promised a return to traditional Tory values: Low taxes, a small state, individual responsibility.
It nearly proved a winning ticket. She secured 105 votes from MPs – only eight fewer than Liz Truss, who went on to win – but this wasn’t enough for her to be put before the party members in the final vote.
If Mordaunt had made it to that stage, she might have been expected to perform well. A darling of the Tory grassroots, her military background – she is a Royal Navy reservist – and references to Margaret Thatcher have played well among party members.
In her previous campaign video, Mordaunt recalled watching a naval task force sail from her home town of Portsmouth, where she is now the MP, to the Falklands – the South Atlantic islands that Thatcher went to war with Argentina to reclaim. “It taught me that my country stands up to bullies,” she said.
Mordaunt has been criticized in the past for her ideological flexibility. At the recent Conservative Party conference, she called Truss’ policies “great.” Given the implosion of “Trussonomics,” she will probably have to revise her position on that.
She also revised her thoughts on another contentious issue. When she was minister for women and equalities, Mordaunt took a pro-transgender stance, asserting that “trans men are men, trans women are women.”
But, under pressure from the more socially conservative members of her party, she abandoned this stance during the last leadership election, saying a trans woman could not be considered a “biological woman” like herself.
These vacillations have led some to question whether Mordaunt has an underlying political philosophy – or whether she is merely a savvy politician with her eyes on Number 10.