'I don't like booing. It isn't helpful to the team'
‘I don’t like booing. It isn’t helpful to the team’ – Penny Mordaunt weighs in on England and the culture wars.
Penny Mordaunt doesn’t like booing. Unlike Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, she had no hesitation in telling England fans who boo players who take the knee that they are wrong and should stop.
But then the former Secretary of State for Defence who was sacked from the Cabinet by the current Prime Minister before being brought back at a more junior level can be brave.
While other ministers dived for cover Mordaunt was prepared to publicly criticise Dominic Cummings when his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham was revealed.
Now she has published a book, Greater, Britain After the Storm, with a forward by Bill Gates, which amounts to a reforming manifesto for post-Brexit Britain. It has endorsements from Johnson, Tony Blair and Richard Curtis among many others.
As a female Brexiter from a relatively modest background who supported Jeremy Hunt for the Tory leadership, Mordaunt offers the ruling party a glimpse of the road not taken.
Meeting in her Commons office she insists she is a “team player” and says she can’t talk about the book written while out of Government.
Mordaunt dutifully sticks to the Government line on the Northern Ireland protocol for which as a Cabinet Office minister she has responsibility.
One of the key themes in her book is that the UK’s best asset is its reputation for trustworthiness. She denies threats to rip up a key part of the Brexit deal undermine that asset. Similarly, the former aid minister defends the cut to the development budget.
But when it comes to the so-called culture wars and England fans booing players taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mordaunt is prepared to stick her neck out.
Downing Street’s initial refusal to condemn those who boo was taken as a confirmation by those who suspect Mr Johnson is more interested in keeping former Brexit Party voters in the Tory camp than healing divides.
It was only after The Sun came out against the booing that Number 10 changed course. Speaking two days before that, however, Mordaunt was clear.
“My view is that I don’t like booing. And I think that this is a really, this is a really difficult situation. I think that lots of people have done things with the best motives clearly, lots of people support Black Lives Matter for lots of different reasons. And I think it’s very clear what, what, the football players are, are signalling. It’s clearly a really raw issue for a lot of the team.
“I don’t think [booing] is helpful to the team. And I think the vast majority of fans, even if they didn’t like that gesture or might support the motives behind it but thought it was not appropriate, wouldn’t be booing.”
Mordaunt’s book includes an extended and explicit condemnation of the political exploitation of so-called ‘culture wars’ so how does she feel to be part of a Government that can feel it wants to start an argument in an empty room?
“I think the nation will be served best if we bring people together, we’ve got enough on our plate. And we require everyone to be pulling together to get the things done that we want, whether it’s across political divides. And I also think we’ve got a lot to deliver. So we’ve got to change the way we work to become as effective as we possibly can be.
She adds: “I’ve never received a memo, as a minister, telling me to get into fights. I don’t think that that is what the Government is, is focused on, and certainly this minister is not.”
In her maiden speech she revealed she was named after HMS Penelope, a Second World War cruiser, nicknamed “HMS Pepperpot because of her ability to endure massive amounts of shelling and remain afloat and able to return fire”.
Angela Rayner caught a broadside volley last month in the House of Commons when Mordaunt took Labour’s deputy leader apart during a debate on Johnson’s notorious flat redecoration.
Mordaunt snorts when told some people think her performance was so good it must have been scripted by Michael Gove. She says her background has made her used to being underestimated.
Born in Torquay in 1973 her mother died when she was 15 and, together with her twin brother James, she effectively brought up Edward, the youngest sibling.
“From about the age of 13 we were carers and we were doing all the things you do to run a house. We didn’t have things – we didn’t have a washing machine, we did a lot of laundry by hand and those sorts of things so it was physically quite demanding.”
She only discovered she was dyslexic when writing the book. Despite the obstacles she became the first of her family to go to university, got a job with the Tories and kept fighting her Portsmouth seat until she won it for the party.
Through her mother’s side she is related to Philip Snowden, 1st Viscount Snowden, Labour’s first chancellor, but Mordaunt adopted Tory leader Margaret Thatcher as a role model as a child.
“Although it was difficult at the time it taught me an awful lot. It’s probably one of the reasons why I ended up on my side of the aisle here.
“It was about taking responsibility, it was about wanting services to work really effectively, and. some of the aspects of health care that I saw my mum having to put up with.”
Portraits by Justin Sutcliffe