Should Labour fear Penny Mordaunt if she became Prime Minister?

Daniel Green
Penny Mordaunt
Photo: B. Lenoir/Shutterstock

As support for the Conservative Party plummets down to the lows seen in the dying days of Liz Truss’ premiership, some MPs on the government benches are increasingly talking up the prospect of ousting yet another Prime Minister to salvage their electoral prospects.

Some Tory MPs are arguing Penny Mordaunt would be best placed to prevent what pollsters expect will be a Labour landslide at the general election.

Both the bookmakers and Conservative voters in 2019 seemingly share this view, with a survey by Deltapoll last month finding Penny Mordaunt was the only candidate thought to have a better chance of winning the party a fifth term than the Prime Minister.

So how worried should Labour be?

Mordaunt could lose her seat

Google search traffic may have spiked recently for “will Penny Mordaunt be the next  Tory leader/Prime Minister”, but arguably top Labour figures should and will keep worrying more about the current PM than hypothetical replacements for now.

Even many Tories itching for a new direction are likely to have reservations about the message yet another leadership contest and change of Prime Minister will send to the electorate.

There’s a fair way to go from current manoeuvrings and speculation to a full-flung coup.

ConHome Cabinet League Table Feb 2024
Penny Mordaunt topped a ConservativeHome satisfaction survey of party members

Yes, Mordaunt ranked top among Tory members the latest cabinet league table of popularity rankings carried out by ConservativeHome, with a net satisfaction rating of around +55. That compares to the Prime Minister’s dismal minus 23.1 score, putting him in second last place only to illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson.

But Sunak allies are now highlighting the risk Mordaunt could lose her seat the next election, hoping it will deter mutinous Tory MPs.

Labour candidate against Mordaunt says voters don’t feel ‘listened to’

Amanda Martin, Labour’s candidate in Portsmouth North, has struck an upbeat note on that front too in recent posts on X, quoting media reports about a potential Mordaunt leadership bid.

“Out tonight in Portsmouth North talking to residents about the issues they face and the concerns they have that simply aren’t being listened too. This government have no plans for change. So many are saying they have simply had enough and that it’s time for a change.”

In another post, she wrote: “For too long it’s been party before people.”

According to political forecaster Electoral Calculus, Martin is anticipated to defeat Penny Mordaunt when voters go the polls.

Should Mordaunt be in Number 10 in such a situation, it would mark the first time an incumbent Prime Minister lost their own seat in the House of Commons.

Another parliamentary candidate in a target seat for Labour told LabourList that Rishi Sunak had proved “incredibly unpopular” on the doorstep, but “so is the entire Conservative Party”.

While he said Labour takes nothing for granted, he added: “I’m not sure changing leader will really turn around their fortunes – they can’t run from their record.”

Backbench Labour MP: A new PM may get a poll boost

One backbencher, however, said that a new leader like Penny Mordaunt could help improve the Conservatives’ dismal performance in the polls of late.

He said: “Conservatives do well when they have leaders seen as strong, fair and compassionate.”

He also said that a new leader would enjoy a boost in the polls, which they could use as a chance to go to the country.

However, the backbencher said that any new leader would only be able to do damage limitation to a Conservative defeat. “No-one can turn the ship around,” he said.

Australia saw a new PM reverse party’s fortunes – but Tories have a mountain to climb

Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of political science at the University of Bristol, has researched the development of the Labour Party since 1945.

He echoed the view that, on occasion, a ruling party can see a honeymoon period following a change of leadership.

“The example often quoted concerns the Australian Labor Party, who replaced Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke in February 1983 – they went on to win a general election the following month,” Wickham-Jones explained.

However, he went on to say that the wide polling lead Labour has sustained for more than a year “suggests a profound dissatisfaction” with the Conservative Party at-large, going beyond just who is leading the country.

He said: “The lead that the Labour Party has enjoyed over the Conservative government in recent years has been pretty stable, probably reflecting structural factors and an electorate looking back at the latter’s performance in office.

“Clearly, the revelations of Partygate and the economic crisis of Liz Truss’ premiership weigh heavily in this.

“Of course, opinion polls do not translate directly into seats at a general election and there is still some way to go before the end of this Parliament, but the polls suggest a profound dissatisfaction with the ruling party which appears to go beyond the choice of Prime Minister.”

John Curtice: PM Mordaunt would find it ‘very difficult’ to close poll gap

John Curtice, polling guru and professor of politics at Strathclyde University, seems to agree, telling Times Radio that Penny Mordaunt would find it “very, very difficult” to turn around opinion polls if she became party leader.

He said: “Nothing is impossible in politics, but certainly anybody who fancies going for the job, if Mr Sunak is brought down, would certainly need to be aware that they could end up being an extremely short Prime Minister indeed.”

While the only predictable thing about politics of late has been its unpredictability, the consensus appears to be that changing Prime Minister for the third time in three years will make no difference in the eyes of voters and that frustration and that anger at the government goes beyond just the person at the top.

No amount of standing up and fighting appears to be able to change that.

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