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Voices: Has Penny Mordaunt’s time finally come?

Opinion polls from Savanta and Michael Ashcroft show that Mordaunt is the most popular leading Conservative  (Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Opinion polls from Savanta and Michael Ashcroft show that Mordaunt is the most popular leading Conservative (Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

A coronation for the bearer of the sword of state. The latest scheme to save at least some Conservative MPs from the executioners of the electorate is a plot to replace Rishi Sunak with Penny Mordaunt in a leadership election with only one candidate.

“You could not have another contest and the only possible candidate I can see people uniting behind is Penny,” a source told the Daily Mail. Apparently, Tory MPs “on the right of the party”, who would rather have Kemi Badenoch or Suella Braverman as leader, would settle for Mordaunt if she would “allow social policy to be set by others” – Mordaunt’s “woke views on gender issues” being the main obstacle to their backing her.

The priority of the plotters is to “get rid of Rishi”, in the belief that almost anybody else as prime minister would lose fewer Tory seats. They are excited by opinion polls from Savanta and Michael Ashcroft showing that Mordaunt is the most popular leading Conservative – more popular than Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, Badenoch or Braverman.

They dismiss suggestions that the voters would take a dim view of the Tory party offering them yet another prime minister, the fourth since the last election, or that it would be too late to make the switch now. “No 10’s handling of some recent events has been so astonishingly bad,” the Daily Mail’s source said, that what had seemed “ridiculous” until recently was now “much more likely”.

Some Tories have even cited the Bob Hawke scenario to me, referring to the Australian Labor Party changing its leader after the election was called in 1983 and going on to win four weeks later.

Other precedents are cited. The “coronation” of Michael Howard as Tory leader after MPs dumped Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. Howard was elected unopposed, partly because MPs couldn’t trust the party members to make the right choice, as they sought to avoid a meltdown at the 2005 election.

It should be possible to persuade other candidates not to stand this time too, it is argued. Badenoch, who is the favourite to take over as leader after the election, does not want to be leader before it, whereas Mordaunt might see it as her best chance.

Well, I kept it up for seven paragraphs. It was fun while it lasted. But the time has come to admit that “Has Penny Mordaunt’s time come?” is a QTWTAIN: a Question To Which The Answer Is No. The idea was ridiculous before the prime minister dealt ineptly with Lee Anderson, a former Tory deputy chair, saying the mayor of London was controlled by Islamists, and before he dithered in response to the unpleasant comments about Diane Abbott made by Frank Hester, the Tories’ biggest donor. And it is still ridiculous now.

Mordaunt’s relatively favourable opinion-poll rating is a mirage. She looked great at the actual coronation in Westminster Abbey, and she has made good use of the one perk of being leader of the House of Commons, which is that she gets a guaranteed slot in the chamber every week. She can use this to range across any subject, including her favourite, bashing the Scottish National Party, and it clips up well on social media.

But she struggled in the leadership election in 2022. In the two TV debates featuring five candidates, she was eclipsed by Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat, let alone by the front runners, and when she was eliminated in the final MPs’ ballot, she endorsed Liz Truss rather than Sunak. Of course, she could see which way the members were going and wanted to back the winner, but it was a questionable judgement.

If Tory MPs think that Sunak has made mistakes and fumbled opportunities to recover lost ground with the voters, they should remember Mordaunt’s “stand up and fight” speech at last year’s Tory conference, delivered to a sleepy, half-empty hall as if she were urging hostile villagers to take up arms against an oppressive feudal lord.

Even if the plotters are right that another change of leader could save a few seats from the deluge that is about to hit them, they know it cannot be done. The idea that even losing the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties in the local elections in May will persuade half of Tory MPs to vote no confidence in Sunak remains ridiculous.

A small number of Boris-loving or Rishi-hating Tory MPs are motivated to talk to journalists about plots. But most Tory MPs are One Nation moderates, divided between those who have given up and those who think that ditching Sunak would only make matters worse. They mostly think highly of the prime minister and are disappointed that he hasn’t been able to turn things round. Some think that is his fault – usually couched as a criticism of the team around him – but others say that, in hindsight, the problems he inherited were insoluble.

They are all preparing for defeat at the general election in different ways. The one thing they are not going to do is to unite behind a plan to crown Mordaunt as prime minister. She is not the answer to the Tory party’s question: who will save us? “Has Penny Mordaunt’s time come?” remains a QTWTAIN.