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Sensemaker: Penny Mordaunt’s moment

Sensemaker: Penny Mordaunt’s moment

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russian missiles hit a city centre in central Ukraine far away from the front line, killing at least 23 people. 
  • Ivana Trump, the ex-wife of Donald Trump, died aged 73 in New York.
  • A red warning for extreme heat was issued across parts of England next week as temperatures could reach 40C (104F).
  • Sri Lanka’s president resigned after fleeing to Singapore amid mass protests. 

Penny Mordaunt’s moment

Five days ago, just 16 per cent of Conservative voters could identify Penny Mordaunt when presented with her picture, compared with 77 per cent who correctly named the UK’s former chancellor Rishi Sunak, now a rival for the party leadership. Today, Mordaunt is the bookies’ favourite to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister and – the polls suggest – the clear front runner among members.

What happened?

Mordaunt, 49, was rising up the ranks in Theresa May’s cabinet, serving as international development secretary and briefly as defence secretary, before leaving the government when Johnson became leader (she later served in a junior role). She has turned this position of relative obscurity over the past two years to her advantage: among members she is seen as someone with experience but “isn’t too tainted” by the Johnson scandals, says Prof Tim Bale from Queen Mary University of London and the author of Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century. He adds that she is perceived as “relatively spontaneous and personable”, in contrast to other candidates. 

Other reasons for her apparent popularity include:

  • Service background: Named after the navy cruiser HMS Penelope, Mordaunt has long been a reservist in the Royal Navy. She has called defence the “first duty” of any government and would continue the UK’s commitment to Ukraine.
  • Grassroots work: Mordaunt has reportedly been working the so-called “rubber chicken circuit” of fundraising dinners for some time, putting in the hours with local council groups.

In strategic preparation for this moment – which Sensemaker understands she did not expect to arise so soon – Mordaunt penned a book last year setting out her manifesto for Britain. Co-authored with Chris Lewis, an anti-Brexit author and entrepreneur (with reported aspirations to play a role in Number 10 if Mordaunt wins), the book Greater: Britain After the Storm was deliberately pitched as an optimistic alternative to the “unprecedented division” of the past decade. Bill Gates wrote the foreword; Elton John called it “timely” while Tony Blair pronounced it “really important”. Mordaunt reveals that she was diagnosed with dyslexia during the writing of the book, after suffering headaches for decades.

What does she believe? Mordaunt says Britain needs a “clearly articulated long-term plan”. The details of this plan aren’t fully clear – but her proposals so far include:

  • Modernisation: A modernised parliament, including electronic voting and video conferencing. She also calls for an elected house of Lords.
  • Elected officials: More diversity in the Commons. She is particularly critical of the overwhelming dominance of university graduates in politics, shutting out those with different life experience.
  • Government reform: Devolve tax-raising powers to local authorities.

Her views on trans rights are also coming under scrutiny: she has previously said in Parliament that “trans men are men, trans women are women” but has rowed back since launching her campaign, making clear her commitment to same-sex spaces. She also controversially claimed before the Brexit referendum that the UK would not be able to stop Turkey joining the EU and defended those remarks this week.

Most of her remaining rivals have now turned on Mordaunt as they battle to make it to the final two. Allies of Sunak accuse her of being “fiscally incontinent” while a member of the Liz Truss camp reportedly pointed out her relative inexperience. David Frost, who supports Truss, yesterday accused Mordaunt of failing to “master the necessary detail” when she was his deputy as Brexit minister.

Health warning Mordaunt is enjoying a moment in the sun, but it could easily collapse. Suella Braverman, who was knocked out yesterday, has announced her support for Truss, bringing the foreign secretary closer to becoming the “unite the right” candidate. The remaining contestants take part in television debates over the weekend – a popcorn-at-the-ready moment in a race with no clear winner. 


China slump
The country which recorded the first Covid cases is now stoking fears of a global recession. China’s economy expanded just 0.4 per cent year on year in the second quarter, below forecasts and even further from the 4.8 per cent in the first three months of the year. What’s to blame? Two years on from the Covid outbreak in Wuhan, the virus hasn’t gone anywhere and President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy is creating a heavy drag on growth – the latest figures reflect the fact that Shanghai was put in a two-month lockdown in April. Stimulus is being pumped into the manufacturing and property sectors to help recovery, but Beijing’s annual 5.5 per cent growth target looks out of reach. For more, see our Sensemaker on Beijing’s engine trouble.


Uber abuse
Uber is facing a lawsuit from more than 500 women over alleged sexual assaults by drivers on the platform. The initial filing claims that the company put the plaintiffs in danger and failed to introduce sufficient safety protections. Uber said in a statement that there is “nothing more important than safety” and said it had introduced new safety features. The company’s own data shows it has a serious problem: a recent safety report showed it received 3,824 incidents of sexual assault in 2019 and 2020. The five alleged incidents detailed in the court filing are even more recent, dating from 2021 and 2022. Adam Slater, a partner at the law firm representing the women in this lawsuit, highlighted a culture “at the very top” of the company that prioritised profits over passenger safety. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Living with Covid
The UK reached a grim milestone this week: 200,000 people have now died from Covid. The policy of living with the virus does not mean it’s gone away; 454 people died last week within 28 days of a positive test. Hospitalisations are creeping up as new Omicron sub-variants continue to spread. The latest figures come as an official inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is due to begin next week, headed by Baroness Heather Hallett. The inquiry has been criticised for a delayed start while the government has reportedly tried to block disclosures. To note: Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice are calling on Tory leadership candidates to pledge the inquiry will be able to do its work without evidence being covered up. No replies yet. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Italian PM resignation
Italy is in political limbo after prime minister Mario Draghi tried to resign over splits in his coalition. The country’s president refused to accept his resignation, instead asking him to address parliament next week. The instability could cause a headache for Europe, which is trying to stay united against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine and an impending energy crisis. Draghi, 74, dubbed “Super Mario” for his efforts to save the euro while head of the European Central Bank, announced his resignation after losing the support of the Five Star party over a financial aid package. He now has to win back his coalition, form a new one, or the country could be heading towards early elections. 


Feta accompli 
After a decades-long battle, Denmark’s case for producing cheese labelled as feta has finally crumbled. Twenty years ago the EU commission produced a strict legal definition for feta: it must be produced in Greece using traditional processes. But Denmark kept making their own version of the cheese, using cow’s milk instead of sheep’s milk, and exporting it to non-EU territories. They didn’t deny they were selling their so-called feta, but claimed EU rules didn’t cover exports, an argument which has now been thrown out by the EU’s highest court. Christos Apostolopoulos from the Association of Greek Dairy Industries said it was “a wonderful day for authentic feta cheese”. It’s also a good day for Greek farmers, who sell more than 65 per cent of their exports overseas.

Thanks for reading. Please share this round and tell us what we’ve missed. Email: sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Jessica Winch

Lily Isaacs

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Ella Hill.

Photographs Getty Images

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