Penny Mordaunt makes a bid to have her cake and eat it on Brexit
The international development secretary supports the PM… but not her Chequers deal.
This weekend Downing Street was said to be getting nervous about the manoeuvres of Penny Mordaunt. The Sunday Times reported that Number 10 had banned the international development secretary from briefing extracts from a speech she was to due to make. In particular, there was said to be concern about the Brexiteer secretary of state's scepticism towards the prime minister’s Chequers deal.
On Tuesday, Mordaunt delivered her speech setting out radical plans to privatise a proportion of the £14bn aid budget, effectively reducing the amount of public funds that make up the UK’s 0.7% GDP commitment.
Responding for Labour, Kate Osamor said: "This is an outrageous distortion of the country’s overseas development programme. Suggesting that global poverty can be turned into an investment opportunity proves the Tories have run out of serious ideas and can no longer be trusted with the aid budget."
Meanwhile, journalists wanted to know, did the international development secretary support the prime minister’s Chequers plan or not?
"The prime minister can count on my support but what I would say is that we don’t know where this is going to end up. We are at a critical moment now. The ball is firmly back in the EU’s court. We are waiting for them to respond," Mordaunt told them.
Asked again for a yes or no answer, the Brexiteer cabinet minister again declined to back government policy and instead reached for a classic spin doctors’ cliché, saying that she would not give a "running commentary" on Brexit.
She then said that she did not have any plans to stop backing the prime minister’s approach, without quite ruling it out. "The prime minister has my support and I’m not expecting that situation in any way to change."
What could she be up to?
Many Tory MPs who supported Brexit see Mordaunt as a strong contender to be their next leader. But if she is to build up support across the party then the international development secretary needs to keep Brexiteers onside – without obviously sticking the knife into the prime minister at the same time.
"Mordaunt, with one eye on the top job, is playing a clever game,” stated The Guardian’s Pippa Crerar. “Back the PM for now, without publicly endorsing Chequers, while making it clear she has Brexiters’ best interests at heart."
It all suggests that Boris Johnson might not be the only Brexiteer MP in favour of having their cake and eating it…