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Who is Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s first female defence secretary?

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Hannah Mendelsohn
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Penny Mordaunt, Defence Secretary, leaving Downing Street

Theresa May has just appointed the first female Defence Secretary, but who is Penny Mordaunt and what does she stand for?

It might feel like Theresa May’s cabinet is changing on such a regular basis it’s impossible to keep track, but it’s not every day that a new cabinet member makes history. 

The latest appointee, however, is different: Penny Mordaunt is the first ever female Defence Secretary. What’s more, unlike her predecessor, as a Royal Navy reservist Mordaunt has military experience, making her the first Defence Secretary in decades to have served in the army.

Mordaunt was appointed after Gavin Williamson was sacked for allegedly leaking confidential information to the press. Responding to her new role, she said: “It is an honour and privilege to work with the best armed forces and defence civilians in the world.”

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With the government going through such a turbulent time, it remains unclear how long Mordaunt will be in this role for. However, it’s certainly a momentous occasion seeing a woman take on a leading role overseeing a profession that only opened up fully to women in October last year.

With that in mind…

Who is Penny Mordaunt? 

Mordaunt has been the Conservative MP for Portsmouth North since 2010. She’s held a number of ministerial positions while she’s been in government including Minister of State for Department for Work and Pensions, Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women and Equalities.

This new role won’t be her first time working with the Ministry of Defence. Mordaunt worked under Philip Hammond when he was Secretary of State for Defence in 2013, and then went on to be the Minister of State for the Armed Forces from May 2015 until 2016.

In fact, her links to the military stem back to childhood. Her father was a former paratrooper and she was even named after the HMS Penelope. She is a reservist in the Royal Navy at a unit in Portsmouth and she created quite the stir in the House of Commons in 2014 when, as a military forfeit, she gave a spoof speech calling for “no more cock-ups on hen welfare” (in all, she used the word “cock” six times).

Penny Mordaunt close up
Penny Mordaunt: The Minister for Women and Equalities has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights worldwide 

What are Penny Mordaunt’s political beliefs? 

Let’s get Brexit out of the way first: Penny has made her Eurosceptic views widely known. She was a vocal Leave campaigner, at one point getting into trouble for inaccurately announcing on TV that the UK would not have a veto on Turkey joining the EU.

Mordaunt has also been clear that she is against a so-called soft Brexit. In fact, at some points it looked like she might even resign from the cabinet all together in protest against Theresa May’s deal.

In an interview with City AM in April, Mordaunt said it was important to leave quickly. “Brexit is something we have to do to arrive at where the public wanted to be, which is to have more control over laws, borders, money and trade, and having an independent trade policy,” she said.

When it comes to climate change, Mordaunt’s record is less clear cut with a mixed voting record on environmental issues. She has recently, however made it a priority for the Department of International Development doubling government aid for plastic recycling in developing countries and called for more work on clearing plastic waste from the oceans.

In April she also announced that climate change would be a priority for the department over the coming year, calling it an “existential threat”. In her announcement, Mordaunt called for the country to honour the Paris Agreement, saying that climate change must be a priority because any other work to improve global equality “will be for nothing”. 

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And what has Penny Mordaunt done as Minister for Women and Equality? 

Mordaunt has been the Minister for Women and Equality for over a year, and it’s a role she will continue to hold alongside her new cabinet position. She has been vocal in supporting women’s rights, working to end period poverty, to stop FGM and end violence against women and girls around the world. In a recent speech, she said: “We should recognise gender equality as one of the great human rights issues of our time.”

She is also highly supportive of the LGBT+ community, and in 2018 announced a major action plan that would involve looking to update the Gender Recognition Act so it the process for legally changing gender is more supportive and less intrusive. The plan also included a ban gay “cure” therapy and investing in education to end homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools.

What else is there to know about Penny Mordaunt? 

There’s a lot more to Mordaunt than her politics. On her website she lists her hobbies as “astronomy, painting and Burmese cats” but a much more interesting anecdote is that while she was at university, studying philosophy, she had a part-time job as a magician’s assistant. And yes, that role did involve being cut in half from time to time as part of the act.

She has said that she got into politics after spending time in Romania working in hospitals and orphanages on a gap year before she went to university but had a varied career before first running for parliament in 2005. Her previous jobs include working as a national lottery distributor creating a programme to enable service men and women to visit WWII battlefields and the director of Diabetes UK.

We’ll leave you with the moment when Mordaunt truly leaped into the public eye: when she entered the reality TV show Splash! (the one where celebrities try their hand at diving, judged by Olympic medallist Tom Daley) in 2014. Clips of her belly-flopping in style made the rounds on the internet but so did the news that she donated her £10,000 fee to charity. Trust us, it’s worth a re-watch.

Image: Getty

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Hannah Mendelsohn

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