Thursday 14 July 2022

Who is Penny Mordaunt?

Then there were five. Having made a big speech about withdrawing from the ECHR, a blink of an eye later Suella Braverman was knocked out of the contest with a paltry 27 MPs to her name. If there's any justice, we won't be hearing from her again. But displacing Rish! Sunak as the bookies' favourite is Penny Mordaunt. The insider "outsider" who has "surprised" everyone with the depth and range of her support, and how she's snapping at the former chancellor's heels and has left the hapless Liz Truss trailing them both by a decent margin. Nothing breeds success like success, and yesterday's YouGov poll of Tory members has helped ensure Mordaunt's challenge is in the big league. Whether the inevitable retirements of Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch will see Sunak and Truss force her out of the contest is doubtful, but not beyond the range of possibility. But if, the poll is to be believed, Mordaunt makes it to the final two and goes on to win, what kind of Prime Minister can we expect? A case of Penny Mordor, Penny Dreadful or, groan, Penny's from Heaven?

There have been some items of interest in her pitches so far. At her launch we some some movement in the envelope of Tory thinking. The first, which she might rue, is slimming down the cabinet. When putting together front benches all Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have to balance out ability, political proximity, and party management. If leading figures from some wings of the party aren't in, the more likely they and their allies will cause mischief. Johnson's over-large cabinet and the swollen payroll of junior ministers, under secretaries, and bag carriers were about buying loyalty. It's certainly what saved him from his no confidence vote. If Mordaunt reduces its size, the more party discipline will become a problem. And, as we will see, that could become a problem.

The second was her remarks about the Treasury. She argued it needed shaking up and its spending round be brought in sync with business and the third sector calendar. This makes planning and joint working much easier. While true and is something sensible from a wonkish viewpoint, Mordaunt is dallying with the holiest of holies here. The merry go round of personnel that flit between the Treasury, the Bank of England, and the City has underpinned the primacy of commercial and (later) financial capital for centuries, securing the nexus between the economic interest of the hegemonic fraction of British capital and the political machinery of state. The Tories are historically most closely associated with and keenest defenders of this configuration of British political economy. They are more the party of the City than the party of business as a whole. Hence one reason why Europe and Brexit was such an acute issue was because it reflected real divisions of opinion in the City - is it best served by remaining in the EU, or do greater opportunities await outside of its regulatory regime? Mordaunt however ia threatening to encroach on the large degree of autonomy the Treasury enjoys in the UK state apparatus and subordinate it what she perceives as her political priorities. After all, one of the excuses trotted out by Johnson's friendly press is their levelling up failures are thanks to Treasury opposition. This move could be seen, and will be interpreted by some in the City, as an inching away from their priorities. But this change not something Mordaunt alone has suggested. Badenoch has argued for the Treasury to be brought into Number 10 - it's possible Mordaunt might do the same if her chancellor is not as beholden to the City as Sunak was/is, and her political life depends on rebalancing the relationship. Interesting.

Mordaunt also discussed fixing the state so it can do things again. An institution so decrepit that it can't issue passports in a timely fashion or meet the demand for dentistry is not in a position to meet the country's pressing problems. But for those mistakenly thinking this is a return to the (rhetorical) One Nationism of Theresa May, or the occasional Johnsonian affectations in this direction, one of her "solutions" to the cost of living crisis betrays the same old Toryism. On tax cuts, Mordaunt said she would cut fuel duty and keep raising the income tax threshold in line with inflation to put money in people's pockets. See the problem? For one, this doesn't help the poorest who are already below the point where PAYE kicks in. Second, the better off get a bigger tax cut. Once you fall below the threshold no more benefits accrue. This raising of thresholds, which acquired favoured Conservative policy status after the Liberal Democrats introduced it in the Coalition years helps lighten the fiscal responsibility on the highly paid - always a key Tory policy objective.

If Johnson had taken his promises seriously, we might see Mordaunt as his obvious successor. But like the Downing Street squatter, she has something else in common: what we might euphemistically describe as a tendency to dishonesty. In the heat of the EU referendum, she made a brazen lie about the UK not having a veto over Turkey's entry into the EU. This was in the context of a major scaremongering campaign run by Vote Leave that suggested 80 million Turks would move here unless we left. Water under the bridge? Challenged about this by Iain Dale on LBC, she double downed on the lie. On Wednesday, Mordaunt was hawking around the endorsement of Sarah Atherton. What attracted the honourable member for Wrexham to Mordaunt's campaign is the fact Mordaunt's a "military woman". Except, of course, she isn't. She might think of herself as one, having run a few assault courses as a Royal Navy reservist, hanging around with sailors, and losing a bet with navy pals that meant she had to say 'cock' in a speech in the Commons, but none of this makes her "military". It's embarrassing. And then we have the Twitter episode where she aligned herself with sundry transphobes, and at her launch said "I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said that every Prime Minister needs a willy. A woman like me doesn't have one." This is gutter opportunism to curry votes from the Tories' bigoted selectorate: she was previously on record as supporting trans rights.

In other words, Mordaunt is continuity Johnson in more ways than one. Her problem, however, is that the batshit right know she's not sincere about trans rights and already have her down as woke. Know that, despite being a Brexiteer, the right have it in for her because she supported May's Brexit deal. I'm sure her fiddling with the Treasury will annoy the right as well. They already have their excuses to cause trouble, and cause trouble they will. If Sunak and Truss collaborate to lock her out of the final two, that will cause a great deal of upset in the party, both in the Commons and in the country. Should she not get blocked and, presumably, Mordaunt faces off against Rish!, for the increasingly unhinged right of the party it's a liberal/woke/remainer conspiracy to undo Brexit, let workery reign, and deliver up the country to the sinister dictates of the World Economic Forum. It will take a while for this to work its way through the parliamentary right, but as night follows day the divisions will come.

Penny Mordaunt then presents as a fresh face, and indeed she is for most members of the public. But, politically speaking, she's Boris Johnson lite. A bit more serious, perhaps, on delivering the programme he promised, and not as egregious a liar, but it's all there ready to see. Her administration, should she enter Number 10, will be as duplicitous as it is damaging. Its fundamental programme doesn't change, but the good news is her victory would add more fuel to the long-running crisis of the Conservative Party. Right now she might appear to be the party's saviour. Instead, she could easily end up becoming its undertaker.

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David said...

Phil you must be delighted at yet more evidence of the Tory party's death spiral. They do seem utterly bereft of ideas.

I cannot believe that their membership are so stupid to buy the standard package of fantasy tax cuts and yet more cuts to services. Surely a good proportion if then use the NHS and / or care services. Surely their kids and grandkids go to university, want to buy a house, at least rent somewhere without getting skinned alive, etc...

Might 2024 (or sooner) see the blessed day when we get rid of this shower?

Robert Dyson said...

Thanks for this. I knew there was something I did not like about Penny Mordaunt but could not remember. You have clarified. These people never formed a team, they just tagged on until they could gain some advantage.

Blissex said...

«Phil you must be delighted at yet more evidence of the Tory party's death spiral. They do seem utterly bereft of ideas.»

I guess some people regard politics as a (wykehamist) debate of ideas among philosopher-kings (the "whig" view), and some others as a contest of personalities for prominence (the "tory" view), but our blogger keeps reminding us that politics is not about idea, it is about interests, in particular class interests (and it is from these that ideas are derived).

As to that the Conservatives are not in a death spiral: they represent robustly a narrow spread of powerful interests, who don't care about ideas, as Friedman, Hayel, Thatcher already had all the ideas their sponsors need. The powerful interests that the Conservatives represent are not in a «death spiral» they have been mostly winning for 40 years.

The New Labour and LibDem parties are also "utterly bereft of ideas" (when was the last time that you heard one of their top politicians say anything that was different from a platitude), so they should be in a death spiral too...

All three of those parties are not in a death spiral but in decline, because they all represent rentier upper/upper-middle class interests and the number of mass rentiers is shrinking, as fewer people as time goes are able to become rentiers (pensions, property) with time. But this is quite slow and does not matter much, because no major party is willing to represent the interests of non-rentiers (aka "trots"), especially after the harsh lessons meted out to Jeremy Corbyn.