Back in July I filed a profile of Penny Mordaunt, the then Defence Secretary, to the Sunday Times magazine. It appeared in the 21 July edition and you can read it HERE. Three days later, she was summarily sacked from her job much to everyone's surprise, including mine. I thought I'd post my original unedited article, which is about 1500 words longer than the one that appeared in the Sunday Times.
She’s the Defence Secretary who doubles as a Royal Navy reservist. She’s one of the most popular MPs in the House of Commons - a natural conciliator who finds the routine circus of political point-scoring rather tiresome. And had she run for the leadership, Penny Mordaunt could have been our next Prime Minister.
Instead this staunch Brexiteer decided, after much agonising, not to run and then surprised everyone by throwing her lot in with Jeremy Hunt.
So why the cold feet? In the end it all came at the wrong time. She had only just started a new job, and when it all kicked off, she had to spend a few all-important days at a defence conference in Singapore and by the time she returned she had an important part to play in the D-Day commemorations. And, perhaps just as importantly, there were already 13 candidates in the race already.
Also, she’d just bagged the job she’d always wanted, and nearly got back in November 2017 when Michael Fallon resigned. She wasn’t about to risk the defence of the realm for what might have been an abortive leadership bid.
But make no mistake, it’s a job she wants to keep whoever wins. “I hope I have longer than a few weeks,” she told me, “but even if not – you can do a lot in a few weeks and there are some things I really wanted to get done, which require time.” She is, however, philosophical. “Boris knows me, he’ll know who I am, he’ll know my personality type, he knows I’m a team player… If that team does not include me – well, I’ll still be serving my party, country and the armed forces from the back benches.”
Of the twenty or so MPs I spoke to for this article, all of them were disappointed Mordaunt didn’t run. I put it to her that most of these MPs would have voted for her. She looks rather wistful: “Yes, I am aware of this. I am aware of all of these things, but we need to pull people together and that has factored in my decision about who I’ve backed and my decision not to run, but people have been very supportive.”
Nicky Morgan, a contemporary of hers in the ‘Class of 2010’ intake says: “I think we all expected her to stand and I’m sorry in a way she didn’t, but given how the contest has turned out – she was probably wise to have saved her powder for next time although next time could come quite quickly.”
Mordaunt is quick to recognise that there are people who feel let down by her decision not to run, but I wonder if she’ll ever look back and ever wonder ‘what if?’? “I’m not the sort of person that thinks like that. I think you have to think very carefully and strategically about what is the right thing to do, and top of that list is what’s the best thing for country right now. But I think you do want to take opportunities as and when they come.” She’s certainly leaving the door open for a future leadership tilt. “I don’t so much think ‘what if’ but we’ll see what the future holds.”
One thing that dogs Mordaunt is the number of people who seem to think she’s not up to the job intellectually. It’s almost always men who make the allegation. The fact that she’s female, blonde and appeared on TV in a swimsuit seems to count against her, even in today’s supposedly female friendly Tory Party. She laughs and throws back her head: “They never say it to my face. It is something that you do get as a woman, but I think you also get it as a younger person – people make assumptions about you. People are noticing that good leadership happens in all shapes and sizes. Just because you’re the last person to speak in a meeting doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to say.”
Some politicians tart themselves around the media and never refuse an invitation to be interviewed. Not Penny. In ten years on the radio I’ve interviewed her only once. I ask her if she’d been less reclusive and more pushy, would it have shaped events rather differently? “I think they are different things, I’m not a Matt Hancock, and I’m not a Rory Stewart – that’s not my style.” If she really does want to be primus inter pares that will need to change. If you don’t push yourself forward in politics, no one else will. She disagrees. “I think the public don’t appreciate that sort of approach. I think people like people who are themselves, they like people who have a bit of humility; that know why they’re here and know what they want to get done but know they don’t have all the answers but listen to people. I like listening to what other people achieved and then asking them how they’ve done it. The hero politician is dead, long live the servant politician.”
I suggest that her party is about to elect just that – a hero politician. Her reply is revealing: “Well, we’ll see how that works out. I think you can get away with that if you delegate and empower your ministers to do things.”
I ask her directly if she would want to remain as Defence Secretary whoever wins. No messing about with her answer on this one. “I would. I obviously care about the armed forces tremendously. I’m going to do a lot in 6 weeks.”
She was only in her previous job at the Department for International Development (DFID) for 18 months and she talks as if there is unfinished business. A lot of Conservatives would cheerfully halve the department’s budget or roll it back into the Foreign Office. Not Penny. “What you’re arguing there is savings in office costs. I just don’t think that that approach is sensible. What we should be focused on is what we’re trying to get done. In DFID I said to Defence ‘why don’t I buy some ships, why don’t I, rather than paying you a few thousand pounds, to go and do hurricane watch, basically paying for a couple of bunk beds for humanitarian workers – ‘why don’t I have a humanitarian ship? We could do operations, capacity building in certain parts of the world, but when you have a call on it we can lease it back to you’ – better use of our budgets. That’s the kind of thinking that you need.” Other countries are now interested in the idea and there’s private sector interest in sponsoring it.
Mordaunt is widely regarded as being the person who managed to keep the Yemeni warzone port of Hodeida open. It had been effectively shut by the Saudi led coalition, threatening a massive humanitarian disaster. She had been due to go to Riyadh to confront the Saudis to demand they open the port to let aid in, in order to prevent large numbers of people from being starved to death. She knew just demanding it wouldn’t be enough, so she travelled via Djibouti and obtained shipping records to prove the ships were in fact genuine aid ships with much needed food supplies. She then travelled on to Riyadh and persuaded the Saudis to cave. To this day she gets plaudits from people in the region. I was told by a source at the British Embassy in Riyadh that they thought her performance in the meeting was the most impressive they had ever seen from a British government minister.
When she talks about DFID it sounds as if she’s got religion. It’s a department that changes politicians. Ask Andrew Mitchell. Mordaunt explains: “When I go into any post, I always talk to all the ministers who have held that post, so I sat down with all the previous DFID secretaries. I think Justine’s [Greening] experience was that she didn’t much like it when she came in, but when she left, in her words, it ‘profoundly changed her’.” Mordaunt is clearly continuing to argue the case for DFID even though she’s left it. “When I leave a department I say ‘you’re not losing a Minister, you’re just getting another one’ – I’m still going to carry on fighting for those issues.”
For Penny, however, she knew what working in the aid sector was all about. At the age of 18 she went to work in a Romanian orphanage. She hadn’t applied to university and her father had just remarried. She was at a loose end, working in various temporary factory jobs including at a cosmetics factory in Waterlooville, a contact lens factory in Porchester, at a credit card outlet, at Johnson & Johnson in Portsmouth and perhaps most bizarrely as a magician’s assistant.
She saw news stories about the plight of Romanian orphans, and didn’t waste any time. “I found a charity that was working out there, doing some programmes out there – saved some money and went. It was an amazing experience.” It was that experience which politicised her, although she didn’t join the Conservative Party until after completing her degree in philosophy. She had been President of Reading University Student Union, which must have proved a good grounding for the cut and thrust of political debate. It was then that she caught the political bug. A contemporary tells me: “She was very focussed on politics and progressing up the political ladder.” She is far from being ideological, though and seems more interested in the marketing side of politics. “I always say ‘everyone is a Conservative, they just don’t know it yet’ – our job is to make sure they do. I just think I’m interested in politics because of what politics does.”
She ended up working as a press officer at Conservative Central Office around the turn of the century and it was the then Head of Research, Rick Nye, who encouraged her to stand for Parliament. He was clear that out of all the bright young things in the building, she was head and shoulders above them all. She got onto the approved list of parliamentary candidates but was determined to stand for her home seat in Portsmouth. She certainly adopted an interesting strategy. “Every time there was a council meeting I put on the loudest dress that I could muster, trailed it down to the Guildhall and sat in the public gallery at every council meeting opposite the Conservative group at every single council meeting for the year preceding selection. So when I walked into my selection round they said ‘that’s who that woman is’. But I knew that what they had said, what the cared about – and I got the seat.”
She reduced the Labour majority in 2005 from 5,500 to 300, and decided to stay put. “If you want that genuine rapport with people, then you’ve got to hang around – which is what I did.” But while continuing her campaign she worked as Director of Diabetes UK and the Big Lottery Fund, as well as latterly working as a political consultant. Her patience and local campaigning was rewarded five years later with a massive swing of 9%.
Given the fact she held down a full time job and was a parliamentary candidate, her family and friends were astonished, when in 2009 Penny decided to become a naval reservist – not as an officer, but as a rating, although she went down the officer route later. Given the time commitment, it must have been difficult, I suggest: “It gives you leadership skills - you really understand the power of command, as they call it. It gives you some real self-knowledge and it uses parts of your mind that you don’t normally do and gets you physically fit - which is always a bonus. But I think also, I just felt after I’d become an MP I was going to carry on doing it because if your argument is that you want others to do it - it does help to be doing it yourself. I was using certain parts of my brain I wouldn’t normally do, lots of very sort-of technical stuff.”
A few weeks ago, she stepped down from the role and was made an Honorary Royal Naval Commander by the Queen – an honour only conferred on 30 people. She initially served as a sub-lieutenant, at HMS King Alfred on Whale Island and took part in the Final Leadership Exercise (FLEX) "This was by far the most challenging exercise I’ve taken part in and you really felt that all the skills, knowledge and resilience you’d built up over training were being tested to the max,” she said at the time.
Penny Mordaunt first hit the national headlines when, in 2014, she took part in the reality TV series SPLASH. Given her media shyness, why on earth did she agree to it? She explains: “I remember when my researcher said to me ‘oh you’ll never guess this letter that we got. I’ve put it in the bin but it’s hilarious, listen to this’ and so I did laugh when I heard it. And then I did think ‘hold on, we’ve got a Lido to save’. And then his eyes met mine and he suddenly twigged and then this look of horror came on his face as he started to shake his head. But we managed to save the Lido!” She clearly relishes a physical challenge. “It was something that was requiring courage, my motivations for doing it were good. I have vertigo – I’d never dived before – and with 30 hours dive training I was throwing myself off ten metre boards.” I ask her if she worried about appearing on TV semi-naked. “No! I think as a well-built individual I think you can’t say to people ‘don’t worry if you’re not perfectly formed’ – if you’re not prepared to show confidence in yourself.”
The local Lido wasn’t the only institution she rescued in Portsmouth. She led the fight to save Portsmouth football club after its financially dubious owners ran it into difficulty. She phoned up all the clubs creditors, from HMRC to all the small businesses it owed money to, and got them all to agree to ask for a new administrator to be appointed, and a community buy-out became possible. The result was the largest and fastest ever community buy-out of a football club. She was in at the start and she was with them throughout and won huge respect from the local community. When I talk to her about it, she is typically self-effacing: “I was just one player in it - but it was just a real triumph of what we call Pompey spirit.” The truth is, without her, it would not have happened.
Penny also ran her local hospital visiting team for eight years, every week touring awards and talking to the elderly and the lonely who had no want to visit them or comfort them. It was this experience that got her focused on old people’s care. She persuaded AgeUK and the Centre for Social Justice to produce their report on old people, and on entering Parliament she founded the All Party Parliamentary Group on Older People and Ageing.
Organising people and getting them to act is something Mordaunt is clearly good at. As Disability Minister during a summer recess she drew up a list of issues that Whitehall had collectively failed to grip such as Quality support for people with learning disabilities. She gathered together all those civil servants responsible for delivering each aspect of that service, brought them together, set them the challenge and then literally locked them in a room until they had solved it. It was a unique exercise and delivered some progress on issues which had previously been considered too difficult.
Many credit her with having secured the Arctic star military medal back in 2012. Having failed to convince the MOD that its creation was the right thing to do, she asked for a private meeting with David Cameron allowing his chief of staff Ed Llewellyn to stay in the room and hear what she had to say. She identified a precedent whereby it could be argued that an error in not issuing the medal had been made. This proved the persuasive argument.
Penny has never been shy in the Chamber of the House of Commons. She remains, so far as I am aware, the only MP to have uttered the words ‘penis’, ‘testicles’ and ‘cock’ in parliamentary speeches. Becoming only the second female MP ever to be given the honour of proposing the Loyal Address in June 2014 she said of a Royal Naval Reserve training programme: “Fascinating though it was, 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.” Later that year she hit the headlines again for mentioning the word ‘cock’ six times and the words ‘laid’ or ‘lay’ five times several times during a Commons speech on poultry welfare. It was all the result over a lost bet with some Royal Navy officers. The left had a collective sense of humour failure, and The Guardian, in one of it’s more sexist po-faced articles on the affair described Penny as “having the appearance of a local TV weatherperson”. Charming. Kate Hoey accused her of ‘trivialising Parliament’. Penny brushed it off: "If I have offended anyone, I'm sorry. Feel free to beat me up over it."
On another occasion when a gentleman who rather disapproved of young, unmarried women putting themselves forward to be MPs asked her: “And will we be having children?”, she retorted: “You are very attractive, but we’ve only just met…”
She may not be afraid of bawdy jokes, but she’s also one of the most empathetic MPs in Parliament. She takes great care of colleagues on both sides of the House and always has a willing shoulder for them to cry on. She drew criticism for from some after she stepped in to ensure that Labour MP Eric Joyce received support after a series of violent outbursts with her colleagues. She was concerned the Labour whips office wasn’t doing anything to help him.
The willingness to empathise – not always evident in politicians - informs her decision on conscience issues like assisted dying. She served on the Commission on the subject chaired by Labour peer Lord Falconer. He notes: “She was incredibly clear in her support for assisted dying, she was very aware that it was very unpopular in a lot of places – not just in the Conservative Party but beyond. She was very clear, she was very decisive and she’s very independent minded on it. She was always somebody marked out for a special position in politics in the sense that she was not ‘lobby-fodder’ – she was something much more special than that.”
Mordaunt is a very popular member of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. She’s a regular attendee of the Tory Breakfast Club, which meets in parliament most days. Veteran MP Keith Simpson describes her as “one of the lads”. He means it as a compliment and explains: “She mucks in, she’s got a ribald sense of humour and gives as good as she gets.”
She’s a consensual rather than a confrontational politician. She likes to be on good terms with her Labour shadows. When Kate Osamor, her shadow at DFID, was in trouble in the press for writing to a judge asking him to go lenient on her drug offending son, Penny wrote to her to express sympathy and to say she wouldn’t be making political capital.
She’s also not a voluble participant around the cabinet table. A cabinet colleague says: “She gets involved in a discussion or debate when she has something to say. What she doesn’t do – and this is a compliment – she doesn’t do what some colleagues do and feel that she needs to speak on every single thing regardless of whether she knows anything about it or not. She saves her contributions for where she actually has something to contribute and that’s not a bad thing in politics.”
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis agrees: “In the infamous Chequers cabinet she was the most coherent. I only had about four supporters in the whole cabinet, but she was the most coherent of them, the most clinical, the most straightforward. She was across the detail. She’d say, ‘David has made these four points, can we amend this to this end’ – she was purposeful. I didn’t ask for that because I just assumed I was going to be beaten, but she did it, and I think she’s pretty brave.”
When Mordaunt walked through the doors of the Ministry of Defence for the first time as Secretary of State on 1 May, she might have been forgiven for reflecting that she could well have had the job 18 months earlier. When Michael Fallon resigned in November 2017, she was on a shortlist of three to replace him, alongside Andrea Leadsom and Gavin Williamson. Williamson, it is said, convinced Theresa May that he was the man for the job, something the prime minister lived to regret.
So what advice did Williamson give her back in May, after he was sacked for leaking from the National Security Council – an allegation he continues to refute? She goes silent for a second. “I asked to see him.” So he didn’t reply, I suggest? “No,” she says, pursing her lips. It’s the only time in our interview when I sense a certain froideur.
I ask her if she felt a need to restore trust at the MoD between the services and the politicians in the wake of Gavin Williamson’s departure. Her reply reveals her ‘people person’ qualities. She says: “As a Secretary of State you have a ‘to do list’ and a ‘to be list’ and you have to set the tone and the behaviour for the department through your own actions. When I went into DFID, it was a department that had had the proverbial kicked out of it by everyone including previous secretaries of state. So if you wanted DFID to contemplate doing things out of its comfort zone you had to lift them up, you had to inspire them and make them feel good about what they are doing, make them trust you – that you have got their best interests at heart and take them with you. With Defence, I made a point of walking around and doing the floor walks on day one to see people, so they got the message pretty quickly.”
Perhaps she was in the right place at the right time. Everyone knew she was a Naval reservist and had been a popular Minister for the Armed Forces in a previous stint in the department. Richard Barrons, former commander of the joint force command, said of Mordaunt: “She was a hugely effective Minister of State for the Armed Forces. She was highly regarded and understood the defence world from a services perspective.”
With the naval base in her constituency, her rise to Defence Secretary now seems to have a certain inevitability about it. She has clear goals for what she wants to achieve no matter how short her stay may prove to be.
“In the short term, and I’m thinking just in case very short term, the things that I am going to set in train dealing with the lawfare issue, because these people have been debating this and kicking this around for a long time. So, before I’m off, that consultation will be out of the door. I’ve commissioned some work about what I think are the real ‘quality of life issues’ for people in service. That’s not just housing, but it’s also some new things like our childcare offer. I’m doing quite a bit to put the department in the best place it can be for the CSR – so that’s not just asking the Treasury for money, but asking the Treasury to change how it thinks about defence – and the return on investment there.”
I ask her about her biggest gaffe. She looks me in the eye and declares: “I think I’m generally a safe pair of hands.” Maybe now, but it wasn’t always thus. She had a very difficult time as Fire Minister. She was found to have made an incorrect statement in the Commons about the fire fighters pension scheme but colleagues rallied around and helped her extricate herself from a potentially tricky situation. She came into the job at the latter stages of a fire strike. She was picketed and shouted at I a way the strikers didn’t attack her predecessor, Brandon Lewis. He says: “Because she was a woman they were much worse to her than they ever were to me – it was really despicable. I remember there were a couple of situations where they had to drive through pickets which were really quite aggressive and it never put Penny off – she would always go back and talk and deal with them, whereas other may well have been tempted to react in a different way – and this shows the steeliness in her character.” It was clearly a difficult time for her. She recounts: “I was sent images of genitals, the effigy of me as a blowup doll - it was clear they wouldn’t have done that to Brandon Lewis, for example. I was opening Norwood Fire Station, and there were about 300 people who wanted to stop me getting in. I said ‘I’m going to give you one more shot of getting me in the front entrance, if not I’m going to go round the back, stand on the car roof and I’m going to go over the wall. I wasn’t going to shy away from that.”
Her debut on Question Time in December 2014 was viewed by some as a car crash. She wasn’t ready to be put up against Nigel Farage and Russell Brand (who, patronisingly referred to her as ‘love’). But then again, who would be?
In the EU referendum she claimed that Turkey would be joining the EU and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. The truth is, we have a veto, but Penny remains unrepentant and convinced she was right, and still is. “I stand by my views. Just because you have a veto, doesn’t mean you can use the veto. The point I was trying to make, albeit clumsily, was that the British people didn’t have a veto and the UK under David Cameron could never have used that veto because of the undertakings he had given Turkey.”
Cameron was furious and let his fury be known in no uncertain terms. This was a far cry from the moment in May 2015 when she was called to Number Ten during a reshuffle and was about to be appointed Armed Forces Minister. David Cameron sat her down and said ‘Penny, I’m going to give you the job that you’ve always dreamed of’ and without missing a beat, she is alleged to have replied: ‘what yours Prime Minister?’ That story was told to be by a Tory MP, but sadly she tells me it’s not wholly true. All she will admit to is doing a fist pump. Oh well.
In July 2018, in the run-up to the London disability summit, she became the first MP or minister to use sign language from the Despatch Box. Her PPS Craig Tracey recalls the dramatic moment: “I was sat behind her whilst she did that and she had no safety net or anything on that and she learnt it off by heart in between doing two very tough jobs.” She then she had to teach the Speaker how to do the response to it. Tracey says the response was “absolutely mind-blowing. She’s always looking at ways to do things differently.” Mordaunt herself says: “I really hadn’t appreciated how much that would mean to people.” It wasn’t a one-off. At the summit she made an eight-minute-long speech using sign language and no spoken words. “What I hadn’t realised, was that the translator was going to be saying what I was signing and It was a kind of ‘rub your tummy, pat your head’ moment. I was desperately trying to concentrate and obviously most of the people doing this are deaf and it was really quite difficult, but I managed it - it was really hard work.”
Penny was born in March 1973 in Torquay, where the family lived for the next two years before moving to Portsmouth. She was named after a Royal Navy Crusier, HMS Penelope. Penny’s father, John, was a paratrooper before starting teacher training, which is where he met Penny’s mother Jennifer Snowden, a descendent of the first Labour chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Snowden. Penny is also a distant relative of the actress Angela Lansbury. Jennifer was a special needs teacher, while her father went on to teach PE and geography and maths, before becoming a youth worker with Hampshire County Council.
Penny and her twin James did everything together. Penny was into ballet, so James tried it too. Their father taught them canoeing. They both liked amateur dramatics. As kids, they were inseparable. Even from the age of seven Penny was able to identify the different types of helicopter and carriers flying around Portsmouth. Penny also recalls: “I was a bit of a ‘tom-boy’, I had short hair and played for my football team and was the only girl in the team. I knew how to look after myself.”
But when Penny and James were 13, and their younger brother Edward was only nine, tragedy struck, and after a long illness, their mother died from breast cancer.
She says: “I was a carer from 13, and looked after my family until my father remarried when I was 18. One of the challenging things was that it was over several years. It was pretty relentless in terms of stresses and losing a parent you’re trying to deal with all of that and study, run a house, look after two brothers – all of those things. But you become a stronger person throughout all of that, and I think it was a period of time I look back on and I feel sad about it, but it gives you strength as well. I think that was a challenging time, but I wouldn’t say it was a crisis.” Sounds like it to me.
She clearly lost out on a normal teenage childhood and had to grow up pretty quickly. “I had a different week than a lot of my school and college friends. It wasn’t that we weren’t able to have a social life or anything like that – we still took part in things. I think we just always had other responsibilities in quite a tough environment – and physically draining as well. So, it’s different but there are lots of people who are in the same boat, so I don’t think it was an unusual thing for someone to go through.”
She says her twin brother James was her rock. “He said at the time ‘you look after everyone else, my job is to look after you’. I think that was the way he approached all of this. He was going through all sorts of issues himself and had a bit of a rough time of it, but he’s come out very well – as has my younger brother – so I’m proud of them.” They’re clearly a close family.
James recalls: “She was always much stronger than me and looked out for me. She always protected me from the unpleasant side of caring, from seeing my mother in pain. She’s incredibly strong. People see a well-spoken Conservative politician and they probably think she’s never had to struggle for anything. When balls were given out she had her foot on the umbilical cord. She was with my mother when she died in her arms. I don’t know whether toughness was always there or whether it was that experience.”
James continues: “She’s got to be the most compassionate person I know and the person who has done the most good in life. When I see her attacked I do feel tremendously protective. He recalls seeing her at the D-Day commemorations on Southsea Common, standing with the Prime Minister, President Trump and President Macron and bursting with pride, thinking to himself: “That’s the very spot where we used to play as kids. It was very evocative.”
If you’re getting the impression that Penny and James were perfect children, they are both happy to dispel the notion. “We were having a turbulent time at home, and we were naughty at school. We certainly weren’t shy and retiring and we’d often bunk off school and go and sit on the top of Portsdown Hill for the day, says James.” Penny has this recollection: “I wasn’t in school for quite a bit in my last two years at school, just because with everything going on at home my brother and I just couldn’t cope with the situation so we were truant quite a lot in my GCSE years just because we just needed time on our own. So we used to get in a bit of trouble on that. My father occasionally caught us. I wasn’t a wayward individual at all – James had a pretty hard time, but I was fairly well behaved.”
This rebellious streak has continued. “I’m covered in tattoos. I’m not the conventional political brother,” says James. “When I first went to Pride with Penny, we went to an armed forces breakfast. She was wearing bright pink shoes even though she told me was then flying off to the barracks in Plymouth, which I wrongly thought was a gay club!”
He recalls the moment he told her he was gay. “She was the first person I came out to. It was a hostile time. She helped me through very turbulent times. She just put her arms around me and said she’d always be here for me. She’s kept me safe and secure ever since.”
It remains something of a mystery as to why Penny hasn’t yet found true love. She is currently single, although admits to recent relationships which haven’t worked out – the last one ending in 2016. She was married briefly at the turn of the century to someone she met at university. “He was a Conservative when I met him, but I subsequently found out that had also been a member of the Liberal Democrats, which is probably why it was doomed to fail!” She seems very philosophical about the marriage. “It was an ordinary romance – we got married when I was 26. I’m still very good friends with him and his family. I quite often write to his parents, but it was clearly not the right thing for him and not the right thing for me.”
Does she hanker after a relationship? “I’m quite fussy. I don’t feel the need to have ‘another half’ – I think sometimes there’s quite a lot of pressure on you having another half, but I don’t feel the need to. I would love to meet someone, but I’m not going to obsess about it or worry about it. If I don’t meet someone and I’m not with someone ever again, I’ll be okay with that.” Suffice to say that Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Defence isn’t likely to go on Tinder any time soon.
She relaxes by painting. I ask her what she paints, expecting her to joke about male nudes, but her reply is surprising. “I paint things like Battersea Power Station or the Battle of Jutland.” In her office at the MOD she has a giant painting of Admiral Nelson and a model of Lady Penelope, given to her by the Marines when she became Minister for the Armed Forces. Both have followed her around Whitehall and adorned each ministerial post.
Penny’s Twitter profile declares she “loves freedom and cats”. She has four Burmese cats and she sometimes takes them to Parliament to deal with mice in the Lower Ministerial Corridor. Why Burmese? “They’ve got amazing personalities. They’re like dogs, you can train them and they’ll fetch things, but their very friendly, very athletic and just great company, good companions.” She’s devoted to her cats. Her breeder name is Tudorman and has named them after Shakespearean characters.
I finish my interview by asking her what she’s most proud of. She cites the Disability summit in the summer of 2018. “It has left a big legacy - it’s changed policy, it’s changed legislation in nations, it’s changed how the World Bank works - it’s done some really powerful big things.”
A high-ranking World Bank Official told me: “She was effective in using the UK’s position as a development superpower to build coalitions of support in the international community on important issues. Fifteen percent of the world’s population live with a disability, and it is largely thanks to Penny that these people are now firmly on the radar of the global development community.”
The same official also drew attention to her reaction to the scandal involving sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, saying: “She showed leadership, energy and commitment in holding organizations to account and improving standards across the humanitarian and development community.”
She talks passionately about her time as Minister for Disabled People, but in the end, all politics is local. She recalls a recent case where she got a two-year-old a drug that if they didn’t have they would now be starting palliative care: “You do that sort of stuff every single week and that’s really powerful.” Her constituency case worker tells of her being at the White House and dropping everything to help the son of a constituent who was threatening to take his own life. He recalls: “She didn’t palm it off to a case worker. It was on a weekend. These people felt they had nowhere to go. Someone who was suicidal and had been suffering a breakdown. Within an hour she had dropped everything and had police on the doors of the hotel and got him back to the UK quickly.”
She’s also calm in a crisis. Her PPS Rachel Maclean says: “I’ve seen her under a heck of a lot of pressure 10 minutes before she’s got to go to the despatch box and answer questions and the briefs are all wrong. She’s very cool, she will just muster it. She’s always incredibly nice and polite – I’ve never seen her be rude to anyone – even when she’s under a lot of pressure. Let’s not beat around the bush, because she’s blond and she’s an attractive young woman she probably does get underestimated, which is I think why she’s had to do more in every single job she’s had to prove that she’s equal to a man.”
So what after Defence? A former cabinet colleague says she should set her sights high. “It’s too soon for the leadership. The next logical step for her if she enhances her reputation as Defence Secretary - as she will - is obviously Foreign Secretary.”
Her junior minister at the MOD, Tobias Ellwood has a different take: “Penny is one worth watching. She’s competent, confident and developing into a subject matter expert on defence and security. She is media savvy but selective with her appearances. A wise PM would not hesitate to keep her in cabinet. Loyal, disciplined constructive, but, where necessary, critical. In short: prime ministerial material.”
He’s not alone in coming to that conclusion.