British Conservative leadership contender Penny Mordaunt came under blistering attack Thursday after she surged in the race to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as another candidate faced elimination.
The little-known Mordaunt, a committed Brexiteer who was briefly Britain’s first woman defence secretary before moving to less senior government jobs, has emerged as the darling of Tory grassroots members.
In the first round of voting by Conservative MPs on Wednesday, she came a strong second behind former finance minister Rishi Sunak and ahead of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and was installed as the new favourite by bookmakers.
Polls point to the Royal Navy reservist beating Sunak, Truss and the other three remaining candidates comfortably, once the members decide between the final two.
Two candidates were knocked out Wednesday, and the bottom ranking contender was to be eliminated in a second vote by MPs later Thursday.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, one of those eliminated, threw his support behind Sunak, whose resignation from the cabinet last week helped spark a ministerial revolt against Johnson after months of scandal.
Drawing a pointed contrast to Johnson, Hunt said the former Chancellor of the Exchequer was “one of the most decent, straight people with the highest standards of integrity” in politics.
But the wealthy Sunak faces questions about his family’s tax affairs and prior decision to retain US residency. And he is opposed to immediate tax cuts to confront a post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis, stressing the need instead for fiscal responsibility.
Truss, who campaigned against Brexit in Britain’s 2016 referendum before becoming a zealous supporter, was formally launching her campaign with vows of tax cuts and a smaller state.
“My mission is to make our country an aspiration nation, where every child, every person has the best opportunity to succeed,” she was expected to say, as her supporters urged two outsiders still in the race to drop out to avoid fragmenting the right-wing vote.
– ‘Grave reservations’ –
Mordaunt, a junior trade minister who is relatively untainted by the scandals of Johnson’s premiership, has come up the middle between Truss and Sunak with a campaign strong on patriotic themes.
But the Daily Mail took aim at her stance on transgender people, one of Britain’s “culture war” debates that has energised the party’s right-wing.
Mordaunt was “telling lies” after previously supporting transgender people in the role of equalities minister, only to take a harder line at her campaign launch this week, the newspaper quoted a Truss ally as saying.
Her political enemies have also jibed at “Part-time Penny”, alleging she has not taken her government roles seriously.
That line of attack was given new impetus from a dramatic intervention by former Brexit minister David Frost, who was Mordaunt’s boss until both moved on last year.
Based on their time working together, “I’m afraid I would have grave reservations” about her entering 10 Downing Street, Frost told TalkTV, revealing that at his request, Johnson had removed her from their department.
“I’m sorry to say this that I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary in the negotiations (with Brussels, over Northern Ireland) last year,” he said.
“She wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the European Union when that was necessary, and I’m afraid she wasn’t sort of fully accountable, she wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was.”
There was no immediate response from the Mordaunt camp.
Several television debates between the remaining candidates loom, with the first Friday night, ahead of weeks of nationwide hustings in front of Tory members. The eventual winner is set to be announced on September 5.