Polls attempting to gauge the mood of Conservative Party members choosing the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom repeatedly identify military reservist Penny Mordaunt as a leading candidate, but her campaign launch event took a strange turn when she attempted to draw a line under her not very conservative views on gender.
Penny Mordaunt, Member of Parliament for naval base city Portsmouth, Naval Reserves officer, and honorary ‘four ring’ naval captain declined to say what a woman is when asked at her campaign launch event, despite being asked twice. The attempt at side-stepping the simple question is likely to focus more attention on her controversial past remarks, rather than draw a line under the matter, and could risk derailing a campaign that polling of Conservative members says stands a chance of succeeding.
The questions looming over Mordaunt’s candidacy date back to 2018 comments when she was Minister for Woman and Equalities and shepherding new legislation through Parliament. At that time, Mordaunt said quite unambiguously: “trans women are women and trans men are men.” The comments were later repeated word for word by Mordaunt in Parliament in 2021 when she said again: “let me say in supporting [the amendments to the bill] from this Dispatch Box that trans men are men and trans women are women, and great care has been taken in the drafting and accepting of these amendments to ensure that that message has got across.”
Asked on Wednesday morning at her campaign launch at first about “wedge issues” and culture wars — a question Mordaunt clearly took as an oblique reference to the questions surrounding her views in the minds of would-be voters — the aspirant didn’t give a very straight answer, but instead quoted Margaret Thatcher. Mordaunt said: “I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’. A woman like me doesn’t need one.”
The comment by Thatcher in 1991 was typical of her style: at once riffing off her own femininity, doing what was then seen by some as a man’s job, complimenting her loyal political lieutenant ‘Willie’ Whitelaw, and making a gag by conflating the two. A nice nod to the Iron Lady, but not a clear idea, perhaps, of what a woman is.
Mordaunt was challenged more directly as the session went on, with one journalist asking unambiguously: “how do you define a woman”. The would-be-Prime Minister again decided not to give a square answer, remarking: “I’m a woman, I am biologically a woman, and I can tell you if you have been in the Royal Navy, and if you have competed physically against men, you understand the biological difference between men and women.”
The sidestepping of questions contrasted severely with fellow leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch’s campaign launch yesterday, which as the BBC wryly noted featured gender-neutral toilets in the venue that were converted back into single-sex spaces with temporary signs for “men” and “ladies” by the campaign.
This was not Mordaunt’s first attempt to move the conversation on from her 2018 remarks. As leadership beckoned, the MP launched into a lengthy Twitter thread attempting to explain her views on Transgenderism, an effort which left-wing news site and former newspaper The Independent noted had managed to please basically nobody.
I hope in, in the next few days we’ll able to discuss how we get our economy growing again and enable our citizens to live well. Right now, I’d like to address another question that I’ve been asked: pic.twitter.com/OImF6kUVzx
— Penny Mordaunt (@PennyMordaunt) July 9, 2022
Mordaunt’s assertion then that there is a biological basis for womanhood angered Trans activists — one well-known left commentator in the UK even accused her of “throwing trans people under a bus to advance her own career” — while her saying that ‘legal women’ exist as well muddied the water for conservatives.
Beyond the gender confusion on Wednesday, Mordaunt delivered an otherwise workmanlike leadership pitch, vowing to democratise funding for children so parents can choose better where the money the government uses for pre-school-agers goes. While this is well short of a more radical position like introducing education vouchers — a true move to parental choice — Mordaunt at least asserted it could improve provision for the young without increasing government spending.
Riffing off claims that the Labour Party would rather not see Mordaunt in power, she told the room at her launch event: “I am your best shot at winning that election, I am the candidate that Labour fears the most. And they’re right to.”
Perhaps moving to differentiate herself from other candidates, Mordaunt also pitched a unique policy among those seeking to be the next Prime Minister: re-establishing the Civil Defence. Stood down by Harold Wilson’s left-wing government in 1968, the Civil Defence establishment — like the others that exist in practically every other major country on earth — protected the nation from natural and man-made disasters.
While Civil Defence organisations are intertwined in the imaginations of many with preparing for nuclear war, generally they are more involved in responding to floods, fires, emergency shortages, industrial accidents, and crisis management. In Britain, such events are these days dealt with by the army and other armed forces, but this can be inefficient and involves skills outside their primary warfighting role.
Britain’s lack of a Civil Defence Corps was highlighted during the Coronavirus era, when the government suddenly wanted for large numbers of volunteers to roll out vaccines. The government said it was going to create a corps of emergency volunteers — a Civil Defence like organisation — but the plan did not progress.