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A Penny for your thoughts: why my money’s on Mordaunt as the one to watch in 2019

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt

Predictions are a mug’s game at the best of times but in the current political climate they are particularly daft.

So instead of a prediction here’s a tip for 2019: watch Penny Mordaunt.

James Millar.

The international development secretary and one-time contestant on ITV celebrity diving show Splash! (it was a real programme, look it up on YouTube or something) is the only one of the runners and riders to replace Theresa May who has kept a radio silence over the festive period. She must have something up her sleeve.

Her higher profile rivals could not resist shooting their mouths off or acting action man, given the perfect combination of a lame duck PM and the Christmas induced news void.

Sajid Javid’s antics as he declared a major migrant crisis on the Kent coast because some people arrived were met with enough disdain to suggest the nation can still spot a chancer when they see one. Javid went too far in questioning whether the few dozen asylum seekers arriving were even genuine. The idea that anyone travels from Iran for a night time trip across the Channel in December in a flimsy dinghy for a laugh is as outrageous as it is offensive to any right-thinking person.

But Javid, or ‘The Saj’ as he allegedly refers to himself, successfully seized the spotlight – news editors had little else to lead their bulletins apart from the death of June Whitfield and too many of them are too young to appreciate that there’s more genius in Terry and June than in monstering migrants – and so other Tories after the top job had to respond.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a man who once forgot his Chinese wife is not from Japan, piped up with a speech suggesting post-Brexit Britain could emulate Singapore. This comparison is clever because it’s got something for everyone – Singapore’s low taxes and strict social structures are political catnip to the sort of right-wing Tory that pines for the past, while its excellent public services tickle the fancy of those that prefer more state control. The only problem is that Singapore is a city state of five million people in south east Asia and the UK is not.

Gavin Williamson, currently defence secretary but with designs on something more senior still, piled in saying that Brexit would mean the UK could have more military bases around the world. A statement derided by his own Tory colleague and former defence minister Anna Soubry as “utter twaddle” because EU membership has never had any bearing on UK defence capability.

Michael Gove got some headlines for saying that farmers would suffer in the event of a no deal Brexit – a prospect he of course created by backing Brexit then winning the referendum. But Gove seems to be pursuing the top job by cleaving close to the current PM. He’s smart enough to know that the Tory party traditionally doesn’t vote for the person that deposed the incumbent – a lesson learned by Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine in their time. Expect to see him oozing loyalty over the airwaves in the next few days as the big Brexit vote looms.

Penny Mordaunt hasn’t been particularly helpful to May in speaking up for her deal, she hasn’t explicitly trashed it either. There’s no doubt she fancies a tilt at the top job – for example she recently hired a new special advisor from among the Westminster press corps, not a political editor however but the Whitehall editor at The Sun, ie the one that knows the ins and outs of the civil service and how the machinery of government works – so what she’ll do over the next few days and weeks is fascinating.

Perhaps a dramatic resignation ahead of the meaningful vote that would depose Jacob Rees Mogg at the head of the Brextremist faction? Or if the meaningful vote means May must vacate Number 10 perhaps Mordaunt will be the one to hand the PM the pearl-handled revolver and she’s been keeping her hands clean to avoid any fingerprints. Perhaps she has the key to finding a way through this Brexit mess and she knows that’ll catapult her to the front of the field to be the next PM.

It was Mordaunt who apparently proposed a free vote on the Brexit deal at one of the many crunch Cabinet meetings last month. That suggestion was met with derision because it was silly to suggest a government could go into such a big decision without an agreed line. But let’s not forget this is a government that has just given a ferry contract to run cross channel lines in the event of a messy EU exit to a firm with no ferries. Silly is the new normal.

The free vote idea is attracting more and more admirers. Even including Jeremy Corbyn if Westminster gossip is to be believed. There’s a theory that he could allow or encourage his MPs to sit on their hands when the big vote comes in the hope that the PM actually gets her Brexit deal through parliament.

The Irish elements of this outcome would enrage the DUP so much they’d back a subsequent vote of no confidence in May’s government delivering Corbyn’s preferred result: a general election. Could Penny Mordaunt be his Tory opponent should that happen?

She appears to be picking a sensible path through the Brexit minefield, avoiding danger, slowly garnering followers. Could that path lead all the way to Downing Street? Predictions are foolish but she’s certainly worth the watching.





James Millar is a political commentator and author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post

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