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9 November 2017

Promoting Penny Mordaunt shows that Theresa May has neither tactics nor strategy

The Prime Minister has demonstrated her lack of political dexterity again. 

By Stephen Bush

The right person – to the wrong position? Theresa May has appointed Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North and formerly minister for disabled people, to replace Priti Patel as Secretary of State for International Development. Mordaunt, a naval reservist, was widely tipped to be appointed to replace Michael Fallon as Secretary of State for Defence. Instead, May promoted her chief whip, Gavin Williamson, which both removed a respected and effective operator from the whips’ office and riled up Conservative backbenchers.

Brexit supporter Mordaunt is well-liked among Conservative MPs so May won’t have any problems on that side. At the department itself, there will be few tears shed for the loss of Patel, a longstanding sceptic of the aid budget who civil servants felt was aiming to gently suffocate the department from within. There is disappointment, however, that instead of getting one of a number of talented politicians who have both experience and a passion for the brief – Rory Stewart is the most qualified, Alistair Burt another contender, Tom Tugendhat a third – they are getting a politician with little in the way of a background or a passion for the project.

Civil servants on the whole like their ministers to have projects. Officials at Defra have been pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove, who they feared would treat the job as a bum assignment but has instead been the most dynamic minister many have served under. But Mordaunt, unlike Patel, has seemingly never expressed any views about her new brief.

In the wider sector, there is excitement at a new minister who, they hope, will come to the subject with an open mind. (Justine Greening also came to the department without much grounding, but quickly immersed herself in it and became well liked in both the department and among the NGOs.)

It’s worth noting, however, that May could have had both: she could have pleased Conservative MPs in general and Brexiteers in particular by appointing Mordaunt to the Defence Secretary post last week, and then would have been free to promote Stewart, or Tugendhat, to the Dfid post, which would have pleased Remainers, nodded to the general urge in the Conservative Party to give the younger generation its moment in the sun, and – by signalling a shift back to the Cameron era of good relations with the international development sector – have helped repair some of the damage to the party’s standing among social liberals.

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Instead she’s appointed a promising minister who is highly qualified for the Defence brief to the Dfid job – less than week after she had the chance to give her a job that she is hugely qualified for. But at least May’s managed to keep the Cabinet’s gender and Remain/Leave balance unchanged.