Penny Mordaunt, the new secretary of state for international development, had long been tipped for a big job, but many thought her promotion would have come last week.
The confident and exuberant former disabilities minister is a Royal Navy reservist – experience that fuelled rumours that she was a strong contender to replace Michael Fallon as defence secretary after his resignation last week.
Her next opportunity for a seat at the cabinet table has come sooner than she might have expected, or the prime minister would have liked. However, her appointment is likely to be met with far more cheer from Conservative backbenchers than that of Gavin Williamson, May’s close ally and former chief whip, who many suggested privately had “appointed himself” to the job.
Mordaunt, who also served as armed forces minister, is well liked among her Conservative colleagues. After David Cameron’s departure as prime minister, Eurosceptic MPs were keen to have a female Brexiter in the running and Mordaunt’s name was in the frame, though their final choice was Andrea Leadsom, who ran with Mordaunt’s backing.
Mordaunt, who was brought up in Portsmouth where she is now an MP, spoke about her family’s history in the armed forces – her father was in the parachute regiment – during her maiden speech in parliament.
She came to wider public prominence with her participation in the ITV’s celebrity diving show Splash! in 2014. She donated £7,000 of her fee to the renovation of a lido in her Portsmouth North constituency. However, despite gamely attempting a backward dive, she managed little better than a belly flop during the competition.
Out of the pool and in the Commons, Mordaunt has regularly shown herself willing to speak plainly and take risks.She admitted that a speech she delivered on the welfare of poultry had been made with the sole purpose of saying the word “cock” in the House of Commons chamber.
Mordaunt said the speech – in which she said the words and phrases cock crow, cock welfare, cock-a-hoop, cockerel and cock-ups – had been imposed as as a forfeit by cheeky Royal Navy colleagues during training.
Her navy experience also led to the Spectator magazine giving her its 2014 speech of the year award for Mordaunt’s “loyal address” before the Queen’s speech, which called for the armed forces to become more accessible to women by highlighting her own training.
“I felt that the lecture and practical demonstration on how to care for the penis and testicles in the field failed to appreciate that some of us attending had been issued with the incorrect kit,” she said.
Like her predecessor Priti Patel, Mordaunt was an enthusiastic participant in the leave campaign. She caused a major split within the Conservative party after a controversial appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show in which she incorrectly suggested Britain would not have a veto on Turkey joining the EU.
Appearing later that day, Cameron effectively accused his junior minister of lying, calling it “a very misleading claim” and said the leave campaign were trying to convince voters by saying something “that is not true”.
Asked if Britain had a veto on the issue, Mordaunt had said: “No it doesn’t.” She then argued: “I do not think that the EU is going to keep Turkey out. I think it is going to join. I think the migrant crisis is pushing it more that way.”
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