LONDON — The surprise favorite to replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister is named after a legendary World War II battleship — the HMS Penelope, downed by a German U-boat after numerous close shaves.
But those who have worked with Penny Mordaunt inside Whitehall compare her instead to a namesake figurine she used to carry from department to department through much of her — relatively low-key — ministerial career.
Mordaunt was known for displaying in her ministerial offices a large model of 1960s puppet Lady Penelope, a character from the cult British kids’ TV series Thunderbirds. Lady Penelope was a London-based secret agent, famed for her chic outfits and her pink Rolls Royce — equipped with machine guns and bullet-proof glass.
The doll was a gift from the British Marines when Mordaunt became minister for the armed forces in 2015, in part as a mark of respect for her own military background.
“She does have a bit of Lady Penelope about her,” one current colleague said. “She’s glamorous, but she means business — and might have guns hidden in the car.”
Mordaunt has certainly shown her better-known Conservative rivals that she means business over recent days.
Prior to this week she was best known for donning a swimsuit in 2014 and painfully botching a high dive as part of the reality TV show ‘Splash!’, and for a notorious double entendre-ridden speech she gave in parliament after losing a bet with her Navy pals. She is also the only serving MP known to have worked as a magician’s assistant, albeit in the distant past.
But Mordaunt has become a household name overnight after supportive colleagues and admiring Conservative members put rocket boosters under her outside bid to replace Johnson in Downing Street.
She is currently in second place to former Chancellor Rishi Sunak after two rounds of voting among Tory MPs, who are tasked with whittling down the candidates to a final two ahead of a vote by party members. And she would comfortably beat every one of her likely opponents in that final head-to-head ballot, a series of polls have suggested.
One former minister who worked with Mordaunt argued Johnson may have unwittingly set her on course to succeed him when he abruptly sacked her as defense secretary in a “vindictive” act upon taking office in 2019. Former aides to Johnson insist she was simply not rated highly enough by the new regime to retain a high-level role — although most in Westminster assume the former PM dumped her for backing his leadership rival, Jeremy Hunt.
“It might turn out that that was a motivation,” the former minister said. “If in her makeup there’s a ‘You don’t give a fuck about me, so I’m going to show what I’m made of’ attitude, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
He added: “There’s a great drive and determination in her, and people miss that at their peril.”
The political battlefield
It’s true that Mordaunt has spent a lifetime in politics battling for causes close to her heart — and winning.
Her reality TV appearance raised enough money to save her local lido from closure in the south coast city of Portsmouth; she pulled strings to help save Portsmouth Football Club from bankruptcy; and she publicly harangued Whitehall officials to cancel a local power project — which, indeed, was ultimately canceled.
“She was dropping off letters and petitions out the front of the department while the project was in the planning phase,” said one official at the department for business, energy and industrial strategy. “I’m not sure how she got away with it as a minister.”
Mordaunt also fought as part of the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, which triumphed in 2016 with Johnson at its helm.
Afterwards, it was Mordaunt, and not Johnson, who stood up in Cabinet and fought hardest to block a deal that would have left the U.K. inside the EU customs union, according to her supporter and former Brexit negotiator, David Davis.
“In the Chequers meeting, she was the most effective and most clinical at delivering an outcome,” Davis said, recalling the 2018 summit at the prime minister’s countryside residence where Theresa May tried and failed to sell her deal to her top team.
When he and Johnson later quit over the Chequers plan, Davis claims he thought Mordaunt so effective that she should remain in post. “I told her: ‘Don’t resign,’” he said. “We need people like you to fight the corner inside.”
But Mordaunt has yet to be tested — or even properly scrutinized — at the very highest level, and it’s clear that not all past or present colleagues rate her highly.
Some in the Department for International Trade, where she now serves as a junior minister, claim she shirks her responsibilities, focusing only on a limited number of issues she cares about and hiding in her parliamentary offices to plot her route to the leadership.
One official was eager to point out that new releases detailing overseas ministerial travel show Mordaunt did not make a single overseas trip in the first quarter of 2022, despite her trade-focused brief. She has earned the nickname “Penny Dormant” among less-than-generous members of her team.
Strikingly her boss, International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is backing a rival, Tom Tugendhat, for the Conservative leadership, while another trade minister, Ranil Jayawardena, is supporting Liz Truss. It seems none of her closest colleagues think she is up to the job of prime minister.
A former boss in another department, David Frost, who was a close adviser to Johnson and holds outsized influence in Conservative circles, lashed out at Mordaunt this week on live TV. He complained she wasn’t “fully accountable or always visible” within their department; was rarely across the detail of her brief; and even questioned her commitment to the Brexit cause.
Others disagree that Mordaunt is a shirker. One Whitehall official who worked alongside her at the Cabinet Office said not being visible did not mean she wasn’t doing her job well.
“She would get through all the work in her ministerial box, and do what she needed to,” the person said. “But she was demoted from a Cabinet minister to random junior roles. It’s no surprise if she wasn’t motivated to do lots of schmoozing and defending Downing Street in the media.”
A closed book
Mordaunt’s rocky leadership launch stood in stark contrast to the slick campaigns launched by clearly-prepared rivals such as Sunak.
Her launch video was somewhat lackluster and needed controversial footage editing out following complaints immediately after it was released. She had no press spokesperson in place several days after Johnson quit, and is still in the process of building out a proper campaign team.
Her campaign is now being chaired by another former Vote Leave ally, Andrea Leadsom, who stood for leader in 2016 and is now being tipped by some as Mordaunt’s pick for chancellor.
One thing Mordaunt is not lacking is a blueprint for the challenges facing post-Brexit Britain. She co-wrote a book with Chris Lewis (an adviser who dubs himself “the Grand Enchilada”) named “Greater: Britain After the Storm.” The pair reportedly arrived via helicopter to promote the book at a summer literature festival.
Their work received rave endorsements from a surprising cast of characters, including Labour former Prime Minister Tony Blair, singer Elton John, screenwriter Richard Curtis and businessman Richard Branson.
But if Mordaunt does become prime minister, she will need more than a book to introduce herself to the public. Polling this week showed just 20 percent of British people knew who she was — little more than the 12 percent of people who claimed to know about a fake MP the pollster had invented as a test case.
For Conservative MPs mulling whether to put her on the final ballot of two, the question is less knowing who she is than knowing what she stands for.
“No one knows Penny well,” said one senior MP still considering whom to support. “No one knows what she is. She’s a closed book.”