Penny Mordaunt can do for the Conservatives what Ruth Davidson did for Scottish Tories – John McLellan

Knowing the real action was 400 miles away in London, the Scottish political press pack must have wondered what to write about as they trudged en masse down Shandwick Place on Thursday, heading for Haymarket Station from Bute House after the First Minister’s launch of the second instalment of her independence prospectus.
Penny Mordaunt could help persuade people who do not think of themselves as Conservatives to vote for the party (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Penny Mordaunt could help persuade people who do not think of themselves as Conservatives to vote for the party (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Penny Mordaunt could help persuade people who do not think of themselves as Conservatives to vote for the party (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

It’s just as well for them there is drama aplenty in Westminster to write about because there was virtually nothing in the 57-page Renewing Democracy through Independence paper to report, other than the event itself.

Summaries, reference lists and textual notes took up nearly half of it and the rest was little more than a re-tread of points Nationalists have made for decades every time the UK elects a Conservative government; “an update on old arguments” was the BBC’s Glenn Campbell’s blunt assessment on Thursday evening.

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That the next step on the road to another independence referendum in October next year failed to advance the case by an inch will only add to a growing belief that Nicola Sturgeon’s grand strategy to lead Scotland out the UK is a desperate last gamble with the SNP’s sole raison d’etre to buy off an increasingly impatient membership who understandably saw the Boris Johnson era as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

With umpteen more chapters of the Scotland the Grudge part-work to come while public services deteriorate, perhaps the SNP should sell binders to claw back some of the tax-payers money being frittered away on re-packaging information already widely available and debated.

The First Minister admitted preparations started some time ago, back to the passing of the Referendums Act in 2020. It’s therefore reasonable to assume the timetable was scoped, if not finalised, before the disasters which dethroned Mr Johnson kicked off with the Owen Paterson lobbying affair in November last year.

When the first paper was unveiled on June 14, the SNP could not have predicted the Johnson era would be over within a month because he appeared to have ridden out the Partygate affair and survived the no confidence vote, and it was over a fortnight before disgraced MP Chris Pincher lived up to his name in the Carlton Club. To use a cricketing analogy, the SNP’s game is the same, but the pitch has broken up and the ball is new.

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Trying to game Mr Johnson’s defenestration or his likely successor would have been pointless when the SNP imposed its own time-limit of the next general election as a back-stop ─ there was over two years between the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement and the referendum ─ and even if a Rishi Sunak takeover at some point was considered, would someone like Penny Mordaunt have featured in their forecasting?

Ms Sturgeon can insist all she likes that Mr Johnson’s removal makes no difference to her arguments, but she knows that if the SNP/Greens only mustered 46 per cent of the vote at the 2019 general election facing a Corbyn/Johnson alternative, the chances of growth against Sunak/Mordaunt and Starmer are slim.

Ms Mordaunt’s lack of support from within the current Cabinet is opening up criticisms about the problems of a leader with grassroots support being isolated at the top, which is reminiscent of the situation Ruth Davidson faced on becoming Scottish leader in 2011 without support from the majority of Conservative MSPs.

She had no time to find her feet, having only been an MSP for six months, but Ms Mordaunt’s a serving minister, has been an MP for 12 years and has repeatedly shown she can perform.

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Is Ms Mordaunt policy-lite? That criticism didn’t hold back Ms Davidson either. It is significant that one of Ms Mordaunt’s earliest supporters was Borders MP John Lamont, one of the few MSPs who backed Ms Davidson and her campaign manager.

Clearly there is a world of difference between becoming Prime Minster and taking over a Scottish party too small even to be the official opposition, but the parallels are there.

Despite all the sniping about experience and track record, there is no disguising the self-assurance and natural flair, not to say warmth and good humour, Ms Mordaunt displays every time she speaks and to which Ms Truss doesn’t come close. Former leader Ian Duncan Smith was doing the media rounds to promote her yesterday morning, and perhaps Ms Truss reflects his communication skills as much as Ms Mordaunt shares Ms Davidson’s.

After losing out in round two, Attorney General Suella Braverman swung behind Ms Truss, saying it “would be helpful for members to have a genuine choice, someone from the left and from the right", but the membership needs a choice between two candidates who look like winners.

The 2019 landslide was delivered because voters wanted Brexit done and that remains the case, so continuing to bat on about protecting Brexit misses the point.

Brexit is done, and at least Ms Mordaunt can say she actually campaigned for it, and the priority now is ‘Making Britain Work’ and finding a leader who can communicate the message emphatically, but empathetically too.

Some might say Lord David Frost’s open attack on Ms Mordaunt’s ability was the best endorsement she could have received, but anonymous personalised attacks from Team Truss supporters only exposes the worry within her camp and Ms Truss did herself no favours by failing to distance herself from character assassination when asked directly at her press conference on Thursday.

Polling of the membership strongly indicates Ms Mordaunt will win a head-to-head with Mr Sunak, but if choosing Ms Mordaunt is a gamble, which candidate isn’t?

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For someone who appeared on reality TV, Ms Mordaunt has that hard-to-define X-Factor and I can picture people on the doorsteps saying “I’m not a Tory, but I like Penny Mordaunt” in the way they used to talk about Ms Davidson.

Would they say that about the other two? And compared to the tired exasperation and condescension in Ms Sturgeon’s press conference, that’s a show I’d pay to see.



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