Penny Mordaunt's trans problem

11 July 2022

5:56 AM

11 July 2022

5:56 AM

The Tory leadership contest is yet to officially begin, but things are already turning nasty. As well as reports in the papers of dirty dossiers on candidates, Tory grandees have come out to call for a ceasefire in which Boris Johnson loyalists stop attacking Rishi Sunak. Now a row has broken out over Penny Mordaunt’s candidacy. The former defence secretary announced this weekend that she will be running for leader – storming into second place on MP support.

On announcing the news, Mordaunt took to social media to try to address one of the biggest criticisms facing her when it comes to the contest: that she is too ‘woke’. The allegations regard trans rights after she said in 2018 that ‘trans women are women and trans men are men’. In response to her critics, Mordaunt pointed to a track record defending women’s rights: ‘It was me that changed maternity legislation that was drafted in gender neutral language ( by another) to use female terms.’

Only – as Steerpike reports here – that claim has since been queried by both her leadership rivals and Whitehall officials, with one describing it as a ‘despicable’ attempt to rewrite history. Suella Braverman did not got so far as to name Mordaunt but instead pointed the ‘intransigence’ of the Cabinet Office (where Mordaunt was a minister at the time) who ‘refused’ to take her concerns on board over the initial phrasing of the to take these concerns on board:

Rather than being an uncontested celebration of women in the workplace getting on with the job, this bill was hijacked for trans activists who insisted that I had to be referred to as a “pregnant person,” and not what I was and am – a mother.

Braverman’s unhappiness over the episode is not new. She spoke to me about the bill – which was needed when she had to take maternity leave as Attorney General – earlier this year for my Women with Balls podcast. At the time, she said: ‘I was quite disappointed that that wording was originally chosen.’

What is new is the implication that Mordaunt was unhelpful – and potentially misleading in her account. While she is not named, it’s clear that Braverman is unhappy with the recent version of events put out by Mordaunt:

We have gone through a very unhappy season in British politics where inaccurate recall of uncontested facts has badly hurt our party. It is my hope that just as we should call pregnant women what they are, we will all of us accurately recall what we did and said in office.

So, what does this mean for Mordaunt? As things stand, Rishi Sunak is viewed by MPs as the most likely of the candidates to secure a spot in the final two – he is ahead on MP support. However, what is far more unpredictable is which candidate might join him there. The vote on the right of the party is currently split between multiple candidates – including Liz Truss, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch. Home Secretary Priti Patel could shortly join that list. While Mordaunt has a mix of support from across the party, were she to progress to the final two, she would need to win over some of these candidates’ supporters.

As a patriotic Brexiteer, she has many of the credentials MPs on this side of the party are looking for. However, her position on cultural issues has long been cited as a problem by MPs when it comes to winning over the party and the membership. It will likely come up when the anti-woke Conservative Common-sense Group grill leadership candidates on on Monday 18 July. Her attempt to numb that attack in the past 24 hours have backfired and only exacerbated the issue.

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