Theresa May’s decision to replace Priti Patel with Penny Mordaunt in the Cabinet is evidence of the problems the Prime Minister is facing in filling out its ranks.
Ms Mordaunt, a Royal Navy reservist, does have experience in Government at a junior level. Before her promotion to International Development Secretary, she was a Work and Pensions Minister and previously worked as Armed Forces Minister. However she is best known for three reasons: appearing on Splash!, a diving-based reality TV show; repeatedly saying the word “cock” in the House of Commons because of a forfeit imposed by her Royal Navy colleagues; and essentially being accused of lying by David Cameron during the EU referendum campaign.
Making the case for Brexit, Ms Mordaunt claimed the migrant crisis would see Turkey join the European Union and wrongly insisted that the UK would not be able to prevent this. Mr Cameron, then Prime Minister, quickly moved to point out that as each EU state has a veto on any new members, Ms Mordaunt’s remarks were “very misleading”. A reality TV star who spread misinformation for political gain and turned Parliament into a foul-mouthed joke hardly seems like Cabinet material.
Her elevation was prompted by the need to maintain the balance Brexiteers and Remainers who have fallen into line with Ms May’s insistence that “Brexit means Brexit”. Replacing Ms Patel with a lapsed Remainer would have inevitably caused ructions within the party. For the Brexit wing, it would have been a feared sign that the UK was going to retain closer links with the EU than they would like or, heaven forbid, that the Government might allow a second referendum to double-check the will of the people.
Another consideration was keeping the current gender balance in Cabinet, something the Prime Minister was concerned to do. The number of Conservative MPs who are both pro-Brexit and female is not exactly high, so Ms May’s mind was probably made up on hearing that Ms Mordaunt had worked in orphanages in Romania during her student days. The new Cabinet Minister immediately faces a key test: keep Mr Cameron’s pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid or ditch it as right-wing tabloids and some Tory MPs have been calling for. So Ms May’s Cabinet troubles may end up reverberating around the world.