Can Penny Mordaunt sell international development to the Conservatives?

Mordaunt has impressed since taking on the role, but Tory activists aren't Dfid lovers just yet.

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One of the big changes since the last Conservative party conference is that the last Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, is back on the backbenches and that Penny Mordaunt has been promoted to the Cabinet.

Patel was a longtime critic of the United Kingdom’s international aid spending and the subtext of both her speeches to Conservative party conference was essentially: “look, I don’t like it either, but unless we change the Prime Minister, we can’t change the policy – and you know, I might make a pretty good Prime Minister, now you mention it”. That was fairly explicit even in 2016 and even more so last year, when Theresa May was weakened and everyone was casting around for a potential replacement. (That last bit hasn’t really changed since last year.)

Under Mordaunt the subtext is very different: unlike Patel she is an enthusiastic advocate for British aid spending, and does so in a way that appeals directly to the Conservative Party’s sense of itself and of the country, talking up security and Britain’s longterm role as a responsible global actor.  

Those speeches also showcase her ability to occupy that “tough but fair upper middle-class parent” that worked well electorally when David Cameron did it. (Coupled with her strong pro-Leave credentials, it’s another reason why her odds to be the next Conservative leader should be narrower than they are.)

But as well as – inadvertently or not – making a good case for her credentials to be the party’s next leader, she is also taking on the Tory grassroots on an issue it is still not wholly sold on: the United Kingdom’s international aid spending. To do so, she’s adopted wholesale the argument made by the Coalition for Global Prosperity, a coalition of all parties and none, but one with a heavy Conservative accent, whose CEO, Theo Clarke, herself a former and likely future Conservative parliamentary candidate, was one of the development professionals that Mordaunt opted to cede the floor to today instead of giving a big speech herself.

(This was probably wise. Another thing going for Mordaunt is that she hasn’t got a target on her back by running for leader too early, like Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, Boris Johnson or even Jeremy Hunt. The time for a big speech at Conservative party conference may come but it’s not yet.)  

The argument that CGP are trying to make is that British aid spending is inextricably linked with British security and influence: that if you aren’t a power in the world of international development you aren’t a force in the world elsewhere at all. It’s the case that Cameron himself outlined at their launch: that the choice before the West is either a century of global migration and displacement which destabilises the West, or a rebalancing of the global order so that people can live prosperously in the global south.

From a policy perspective, it has a lot going for it. It’s certainly an argument that most pro-development Conservative MPs believe in their bones. (One pro-aid Tory MP recently told me that the 0.7 per cent aid commitment was just “simple good business sense”, and the sentiment is common among their likeminded colleagues.) It strikes a chord with agnostic Conservative MPs as well. But it does less well among the public as a whole, who according to every study that the wider international development sector has commissioned on how to win support for aid spending, tend not to buy big arguments about how foreign aid stops terrorism and global disorder but likes arguments about the opportunities it creates for British people to help out overseas through VSO or the greater control that the government has given voters over where Dfid aid spending goes. (A steady part of the department’s digital output are neat videos on social media hitting exactly those areas.)

So the question of whether or not Mordaunt can sell Tory members both international development and her leadership credentials may hinge, in this area if nothing else, on whether the party rank-and-file is more like the parliamentary party or the country as a whole.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.