©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

How Penny Mordaunt won partygate

Penny Mordaunt can’t stay out of the headlines. Whether she’s stealing the monarch’s spotlight by wielding a 3.6kg sword perfectly perpendicular to her direction of travel, or making equally pointed swipes at a former PM for his purported Covid partying — Penny’s making waves at Westminster.

When she was made leader of the House of Commons by Liz Truss in September, the point was to silence the twice-unsuccessful Conservative leadership contender. Rishi Sunak, who retained Mordaunt’s services as the minister charged with delivering the weekly business statement, could not — on this matter — fault Truss’ reasoning.

Indeed, as Theresa May found in 2017 when she appointed Andrew Leadsom to the post, the despatch box on a Thursday morning may be the perfect place to hide a vanquished if enduringly ambitious rival. But since October, Mordaunt has consistently defied the constraints of her department-less brief, emerging once more as one of the Conservative party’s most visible ministers.

It is one of the curious aspects of the leader of the commons post, which majors on the mundanity of House business management, that it fell to Mordaunt earlier this week to move the motion on the privileges committee report into whether Boris Johnson lied to the House over partygate.

This provided the perfect platform for Mordaunt to announce that she would be voting in favour of the cross-party group’s report — stealing headlines as the first cabinet member to do so. It meant when she arrived at the despatch box, the leader defended her House fiercely: “This matters because the integrity of our institutions matter”, she said. “The respect and trust afforded to them matters. This has real world consequences for the accountability of Members of Parliament to each other and the members of the public they represent”. 

There was also time for further rebukes of the former PM. Johnson, who once sought to silence Mordaunt by tucking her away in the trade department, was accused of a “debasement of the honours system”.

In sum, the leader’s speech amounted to the staunch defence of parliament and its institutions that many would have wanted from the prime minister. We are reminded of that moment back in October, at the height of the “mini-budget” fallout, when Mordaunt was tasked with answering an urgent question in Truss’ stead. The then-PM was “not [hiding] under a desk”, Mordaunt unhelpfully confirmed.

Now it is Rishi Sunak who faces allegations of running scared over his decision to abstain on the privileges committee report. And in her pointed support of the partygate report, like her “defence” of Truss, Mordaunt surely knew exactly what she was doing.

Indeed, by putting her head so prominently above the partygate parapet, Mordaunt’s performance begged the question: why could the prime minister not do the same? The commons chief, sat alone on the front bench, could be seen providing moral and political leadership in the vacuum created by the PM.

The 2024/25 Conservative leadership race

The key criticism levied at Penny Mordaunt in the two leadership elections of 2022 was that few activists or commentators knew why — or for what reason — PM wanted to be PM. 

In the summer contest, she flip-flopped over her views on trans rights and was accused of being hazy on economics after musing about what monetary policy mechanisms she would deploy to control inflation. (She was even said to be unable to “master the detail” by *checks notes* Lord Frost). 

There was an overwhelming sense that Mordaunt, a Brexit supporter with liberal social views and a long-serving minister yet to hold a great office of state, had failed to hone her political pitch — either to MPs and activists. Ultimately, the misadventures of Penny Mordaunt in 2022 culminated in the former defence secretary failing to make the 100 MP mark in the fast-tracked October contest. 

But in 2023, Mordaunt’s political fortunes have risen further and faster than any other government minister. In no small part down to her sword-wielding antics, she is now the second most popular cabinet minister in a monthly poll for the ConservativeHome website — a key arbiter of feeling among party grassroots activists. 

It is, of course, no secret that jockeying for the Conservative leadership has resumed. Suella Braverman delivered a speech to the National Conservatism Conference earlier this month which was widely interpreted as a soft launch of her leadership bid. Kemi Badenoch, another bastion of the Conservative right, may have attempted to reposition her political appeal by ditching the deadline for scrapping EU laws.

We are some way away from a Conservative leadership election and Mordaunt’s partygate performance may in time serve to alienate those tribal Boris-backers in the Conservative membership. But still, the leader’s bid to lance the Boris boil, juxtaposed with Sunak’s reluctance (alongside Badenoch and Braverman’s) marks a key moment in her tilt at a more fully-formed political pitch.

Mordaunt’s partygate posturing also comes after a speech earlier this month in which the commons leader warned her colleagues to spend less time fighting culture wars. “Your team is the nation, and we have to reframe our story in those terms — and that’s why the culture wars and all of that doesn’t help, because we’re here for everyone”, she told a Centre for Policy Studies event held in honour of Margaret Thatcher. It seemed an unsubtle swipe at Kemi Badenoch, the party’s current frontrunner for the Conservative leadership and the government’s most enthusiastic culture warrior. 

Mordaunt, therefore, that perennial leadership contender, appears to be setting out her stall as a more moderate Conservative alternative — coalescing the anti-Braverman and Badenoch tendencies in the parliamentary party. We know the rules of the Conservative leadership contest are thus that only two MPs, having been whittled down by rounds of MP voting, face-off among the membership. So far it seems that Braverman and Badenoch will be competing for the attention for MPs on the party right. It leaves Mordaunt a direct path to claim the mantle of the moderate challenger: the Jeremy Hunt or the Rishi Sunak of 2024/5. Mordaunt will of course want to be more successful. 

She who wields the sword…

Following the coronation, it was certainly worth watching how Mordaunt positioned herself politically. And, duly, the commons leader’s partygate performance has provided the perfect backdrop to a renewed tilt at the Conservative crown. 

It is also worth noting that one Savanta poll over the summer found just 11 per cent of the public and 16 per cent of Conservative voters could correctly name Mordaunt when shown a photo of her. It was a direct consequence of her hushed performance as a junior minister in the trade department; it compared to 66 per cent for Sunak and 33 per cent for Truss. 

Now, one by one, Mordaunt’s triumphant rivals have hoped to conserve her quiet profile by shunting her into the leader of the commons role. But post-partygate and post-coronation, we see how Mordaunt has deployed her post — with all its ceremonial trappings — to significant political effect. 

Moreover, not having a policy brief or a departmental record stained by association with Sunak’s government may provide Mordaunt an ideal platform for a leadership challenge. Likewise, she has turned her leader of the commons post — through her command of the House on a Thursday morning and the seizing of events such as the privileges committee vote — into a de facto “great office” role.

With a clearer political pitch and a bolstered public profile, therefore, Mordaunt is better placed than ever for a future leadership contest. She who wielded the sword may yet end up wearing the crown.