Penny Mordaunt’s greatest strength and greatest weakness are one and the same: no one really knows who she is.
As Rishi Sunak’s only rival in the final stages of the race to succeed Liz Truss as British Prime Minister, that is about to change.
Being a relatively unknown lawmaker in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has its perks. While other parliamentarians have struggled to distance themselves from the failure of previous governments, Mordaunt has been able to present himself as something of an outsider.
But the truth is that Mordaunt, an MP since 2010, held several cabinet posts before being elevated to defense secretary during the painful final months of Theresa May’s government.
Presenting the slogan PM4PM during the Conservative leadership campaign this summer, Mordaunt promised a return to traditional Conservative values: low taxes, a small state, individual responsibility.
It almost turned out to be a winning ticket. She secured 105 votes from MPs – just eight less than Liz Truss, who won – but that was not enough to put her ahead of party members in the final vote.
If Mordaunt had reached this stage, one would have expected her to behave well. A darling of the Tory base, 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 hometown of Portsmouth, where she is now an MP, to the Falklands – the South Atlantic islands Thatcher went to war with. Argentina to recover. “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 “brilliant.” Given the implosion of “Trussonomics”, she will probably have to reconsider her position on this.
She also revised her thoughts on another contentious issue. When she was Minister for Women and Equalities, Mordaunt took a pro-transgender stance, saying “trans men are men, trans women are women”.
But, under pressure from the more socially conservative members of her party, she abandoned that position in the last leadership election, saying a trans woman could not be considered a “biological woman” like her.
These hesitations have led some to wonder if Mordaunt has an underlying political philosophy – or if she is simply a shrewd politician with her sights set on Number 10.