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If Boris is toppled, who should lead the Tories?

Written by Brian Morris

After the double disaster for the Conservatives of the by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, the biggest thing Boris has going for him at the moment is the lack of a credible alternative. Brexiteer Tories ask who might carry their flag in a leadership election. They might do worse than Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt, a Navy reservist and former defence secretary.

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A number 180 bus for Westminster is rumbling towards Boris Johnson and many Tory MPs think it’s now just a matter of time before he falls under it. But who, Tory MPs wonder, as they ponder giving him the final push, might best inherit the crown?

A dark horse bet is Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth, a former defence secretary and Royal Navy reservist. Part of Penny’s appeal to many Tories who’ve had enough of the PM may be that she isn’t a Boris.

Few politicians are. But apart from Brexit (a big ‘apart’, admittedly) Johnson and Mordaunt are about as far apart as two politicians in the same party could be.

Johnson (Eaton and Oxford) is one of a long line of toffs who for generations have been educated to rule. Penny was educated at a Roman Catholic School Academy and studied drama at a theatre school. Because of her mother’s illness and early death from cancer, from the age of 13 she became the family carer, looking after her father and two brothers, one younger and the other her twin, and running the house.

Her gap year was spent working in an orphanage in Romania. Then not to Oxford or Cambridge but Reading University for a degree in philosophy. Her childhood and chosen experiences all speak of a politician who, to use her own words talking to the journalist Iain Dale, thinks a leader should be a ‘servant’ rather than a ‘hero’. Not exactly Boris Johnson’s view. It’s said that on his desk in 10 Downing Street is a bust of his own hero, the ancient Athenium statesman and general, Pericles.

Just what leadership means for Penny Mordaunt and her guiding values are defined in a book she wrote with Chris Lewis entitled Greater Britain after the storm.

This is a book that unashamedly celebrates Britain’s history, accomplishments, and values. But before we sing Rule Britannia and sink back into smug complacency, it cuffs us round the head, reminding us of all the failures of competency and behaviour that have eroded trust in our leaders, our institutions and democracy over recent decades.

Published in 2019, the book has become even more resonant with the revelations of the ongoing festival of parties held in 10 Downing Street during covid lockdowns. A reader is stalked by images of Johnson’s denials and evasions as the book argues that trust is an essential ingredient of what the country stands for and warns it is fast being diminished.

If Greater Britain after the Storm is her personal manifesto, what does it tell us about the kind of prime minister Penny Mordaunt might be? She would be a reformer, a moderniser of the institutions of government, making them more democratic and efficient. This would mean the end of the Lords in its present form and some of the historical rituals of the House of Commons that impede efficiency. Mordaunt would have little truck with moves to restore imperial weights and measures.

Iain Dale writes that the book ‘combines some of the best thinking from all sides, written with love and understanding for who we are and still can be”. While in another testimonial Jacqueline de Rojas, President of techUK, comments: ‘The book lays out a clear plan for Britain, it says we need to modernise socially, culturally and economically’.

‘Clear plan’ is perhaps an exaggeration, but certainly this is a book that doesn’t lack ambition, with a plethora of ideas from contemporary commentators and the authors themselves on how to revive Britain.

Another key word for the authors is consensus, people working together across political parties. Mordaunt and Lewis recognise this is a difficult sell. They write: ‘No one in the media is interested in hearing that George and the dragon have come to an amicable damsel-sharing agreement’.

There have been reports of the government eager to find popular ‘wedge issues’ with which to fight Labour. Mordaunt, I believe, is likely to see this as a distraction from improving the life of constituents. ‘It’s one tribe against another…they’ve both been brought up to define themselves by attacking the other’, says her book. This results in enormous waste as the other side’s plans are unpicked and ‘a decline in trust in Westminster’.

Of course to some extent MPs from different parties do work together: in committees and informally. But the confrontational nature of the House of Commons is baked in, and the drama is contagious.

The best forum for politicians to work together may be when national government works with devolved government: Labour mayors, for instance, working with ministers to deliver levelling up for their communities. A win-win for both sides where both can claim credit.

Travel to the vibrant city of Manchester (if you’re not lucky enough to live there already) and you can see what politicians can accomplish when they work together. In the 1980s and 90s Graham Stringer, leader of a council that has been Labour since the dawn of time, worked closely with the Tory minister Sir David Trippier. Much of their work together was done quietly round the back door. On at least one occasion Stringer warned the minister he would have to attack him publicly to keep his leftish flock onside. Trippier accepted this as a price worth paying.

While Manchester began its renaissance, the early 80s saw the hard left Militant take power in Liverpool and challenge the Tory government. It was a challenge that saw the city conspicuously fail to match the economic success of its neighbour.

In the next election the Tories are likely to struggle to retain their overall majority. They may well prefer a hero to lead the cavalry against Labour, rather than a consensus builder such as Penny Mordaunt. But if the vote leaves no single party with an overall majority, Mordaunt’s well-testified abilities in bringing people together might be what’s needed.

Mordaunt has never held one of the great offices of the state. She was defence secretary for just 85 days and writes that she ‘left’ the role in July 2019 when Johnson became Prime Minister. This has meant she hasn’t been a regular on the media circuit and Tory MPs may question her lack of experience as a high profile cabinet minister. But she travels light when it comes to political baggage.

At the moment, Boris is going nowhere and in the event of a leadership election we can’t be certain Penny will stand. But she’s well placed to be a unity candidate. While she voted Leave in the EU referendum she did not belong to the Spartans, as they’ve be dubbed, in the Parliamentary European Research Group – seen by Remainers as the most diehard Brexiteers. In the leadership election she voted for Jeremy Hunt. She’s reported to be popular in Parliament.

She shouldn’t, though, be seen as a lukewarm supporter of Brexit. Although the authors have different views on Brexit and the book does not deal in any detail with the EU vote, there are a number of comments which show where Penny Mordaunt stands.

Chris Lewis’s case for Remain is difficult to spot, while the book is damning on the EU, stating: ‘Many didn’t like the EU because it wasn’t fair on immigration, it was protectionist on trade and it kept poor countries trapped in poverty within the Eurozone’. By leaving the EU, Britain could ‘point to the benefits of openness in terms of trade, opportunity and the inflow of capital’. Mordaunt clearly believes that the national renewal can only come with Britain outside the ‘one-size-fits-all’ EU.

As deputy to the international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, she has acted to take advantage of the opportunities Brexit offers. Mordaunt has signed trade and business deals with individual US states, cutting red tape for British businesses working in the US and agreeing to the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

Getting on with the job and delivering is central to Penny Mordaunt’s view of leadership. Her book asks why leaders have failed, a question other observers are asking.

‘We are facing a crisis in democratic leadership’, writes Freddy Gray, in the Spectator magazine, speaking of countries in the West. Mordaunt’s book blames ‘leadership models based on the myth of the infallible male leader’. This ‘hero leadership’, she writes, is one where ‘the ‘leader’ is more important than the ‘ship’’. The book is co-authored, but the voice here is surely that of the Royal Navy reservist.

But while she prefers to be seen as a servant leader, her life experiences and choices suggest that, if need be, Penny Mordaunt could also be a hero. The next Tory leadership election might just be the right time for a different kind of leader who’s so clearly not a Boris.

Brian Morris is Managing Director of DataTV

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About the author

Brian Morris

Brian Morris, a media consultant and former current affairs TV producer.