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Mordaunt eyes up Tory leadership

Mandrake has been informed she has already attracted serious financial backing

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

With Rishi Sunak’s body still warm – and quite possibly damp – the only question exercising the minds of the Tory king and queen-makers is who will succeed him? Mandrake is reliably informed a consensus is gathering around Penny Mordaunt, who served as leader of the Commons and Lord President of the Council, and has already attracted serious financial backing.

Lord Glendonbrook, the generous party donor probably still better known as the former airline boss Sir Michael Bishop, donated £50,000 earlier this month, swelling Mordaunt’s war chest to £73,000 and making her the envy of the other obvious contenders for the Tory crown. What makes it interesting, so far as the future direction of the party is concerned, is that Glendonbrook was a big donor to the Remain campaign during the EU referendum.

“Penny rode the whole Brexit wave since 2016 but I think she gets how difficult it’s going to be to make the case after Sunak goes that the ideology has worked out well for the party and the country at large,” one of her Tory associates tells me. “At heart Penny is a pragmatist and she will want to portray herself as the unity candidate in the next leadership contest. It’s telling how seldom she or other leading Tories are using the word Brexit these days.”

Fiercely ambitious, Mordaunt was the first MP to officially announce she wanted to take over from Liz Truss as prime minister but lost to Sunak after the Daily Mail turned on her. I am told she already has a slick leadership campaign video, voiced by a well-known actor, which is ready to go out the moment the race begins. 

The only imponderable, of course, is whether Mordaunt manages to hang on to her Portsmouth North seat – even with a majority of 15,780 at the last election, it’s regarded as distinctly vulnerable – but Glendonbrook’s cash could well help shore it up.

This is the first donation from Glendonbrook, a favourite of Margaret Thatcher during his days in charge of the old BMI airline, since 2019. The timing just before Sunak called the general election suggests he is remarkably well-informed.

Of Mordaunt’s potential rivals, Kemi Badenoch has just £5,000 at her disposal if she contests the leadership, Grant Shapps £29,990, Steve Barclay and Claire Coutinho £23,000 each, Gillian Keegan £30,200, Andrew Mitchell £13,000, and Tom Tugendhat £8,000.

Piqued that he will have to bid an earlier than expected farewell to One Carlton Gardens, the foreign secretary’s palatial £25m London pad that has been his grace-and-favour home since the break up of his marriage to Sarah Vine, it was inevitable Michael Gove would abandon Rishi Sunak and step down as an MP.

A return to journalism is Gove’s only option after the election, but suggestions that he might become editor of the Telegraph if the GB News investor Paul Marshall gets to acquire it seems unlikely. True, Gove was the first to defend Marshall when it was found he had been writing incendiary Islamophobic posts on X/Twitter, but I gather the Daily Mail – where he is close to its editor-in-chief Paul Dacre – is his more likely future employer. 

I’ve reported how Dacre has been critical of the paper under incumbent editor Ted Verity, and Vine, to whom Gove remains close, still works there and claims great influence on account of her much-vaunted friendship with the proprietor’s wife Lady Rothermere.

Gove had long been a conspicuous toady in the court of Rupert Murdoch, but the nonagenarian media tycoon has officially retired and his powers are waning. The occasional rumours that Gove might take over as editor of the Times have always been denied from within the paper’s offices.

Murdoch’s son Lachlan, who now chairs News Corp, is said to regard Gove as “oleaginous,” and, as a cold and practical businessman, he will see no point in ingratiating himself to a political has-been who comes with baggage.

Incidentally, the name being tipped by Telegraph insiders to take over as editor in the event Marshall succeeds in acquiring it is Dominic Lawson, who, unlike Gove, has experience editing, both at the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph, which were both lively and much-talked-about titles when he presided over them.

Tory MPs who had been counting on their usual long, fully-paid summer sojourn are livid with Rishi Sunak for calling the general election on July 4, but the Lib Dems have every reason to be grateful to him. The latter part of July had looked peculiarly bruising for the party and its high command, past and present, and the headlines it looked set to generate could well have been highly prejudicial if they’d come just before a general election.

Sir Ed Davey, Jo Swinson and Sir Vince Cable, who were due to go up before the Post Office Inquiry in July to account for their actions – or lack of them – in relation to the ministerial roles they held during the coalition years, can now rest easy. “We owe Rishi big time,” one disaffected party member tells me.

Sir Lynton Crosby – who was Lord Cameron’s and later Theresa May’s election guru – could be forgiven a sense of schadenfreude at the catastrophic campaign that his one time protege Isaac Levido is currently running for Rishi Sunak.

“Levido was the sorcerer’s apprentice under Lynton but now they are rivals and it’s very different,” says one old hand in the PR game who knows them both well. “A lot of it is an older man’s disdain for a younger usurper – Lynton is 67 and Isaac just 41 – but their approaches are very different. Levido is a big picture man and Lynton’s more interested in the details.”

A “details man” would undoubtedly have checked if a shipyard has any associations to the Titanic, understood it might not be sensitive to ask a group of Welsh football fans if they were looking forward to the Euros, noticed if there’s an exit sign over Sunak’s head as he posed for pictures on a plane, and, above all things, checked the weather forecast before pushing his client out into Downing Street to announce he’s calling an election.

The BBC seemed weirdly obsessed with Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand as an MP for Reform, the vanity party almost single-handedly bankrolled by the rich businessman Richard Tice, placing the story high up on its hourly bulletins last week. Sir Trevor Phillips, too, saw fit to big him up on his Sky News show.

It would have been a story if Farage had decided to stand for parliament, given he must be only too well aware, having stood for election seven times, in five general elections and two by-elections, losing every time, that British voters don’t like the idea of being represented by him and presumably hearing his views.

So far as Companies House is concerned, incidentally, Farage is still in control of Reform and able to call the shots. There is allegedly a plot under way to get Farage into the Lords as Reform’s voice in the upper house, but right wing populism has made him so much money he may be happy just to enjoy the six-figure salary he makes out of GB News and the three properties he now owns.

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