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Meet the Navy reservist battling to succeed Boris Johnson as British prime minister

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 03: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Penny Mordaunt, Secretary of State for Defence attends a service to recognise fifty years of continuous deterrent at sea at Westminster Abbey on May 3, 2019 in London, England. The Duke of Cambridge has been Commodore-in-Chief of the Submarine Service since 2006. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Max Mumby/indigo | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

LONDON — It’s not often that you find a politician who has worked as a magician’s assistant or volunteered in a Romanian orphanage before entering politics.

But that’s the case when it comes to Penny Mordaunt, one of the contenders to replace Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party — and therefore U.K. prime minister.

Mordaunt might not be a household name in the U.K. but she has risen in prominence after being appointed to several ministerial posts in recent years. These include minister for local government, minister for the armed forces, a cause close to her heart — her father was in the Parachute Regiment and she herself is a Navy reservist — and also defense secretary.

She has also been a minister for women and equalities and in charge of international trade policy in Boris Johnson’s government.

Prior to entering politics, Mordaunt had a variety of jobs as she made her way through her philosophy degree at Reading University, having worked as a magician’s assistant for Will Ayling, the president of the Magic Circle, then in the communications sector, as well as a volunteering in hospitals and orphanages in post-revolutionary Romania.

All that before she was elected to be the Conservative MP (member of Parliament) in her hometown of Portsmouth, according to her biography on her constituency website.

With her boss Johnson standing down several weeks ago after a series of scandals and controversies while in office, Mordaunt has seen a chance to break through into the political mainstream and is in the final three candidates that could replace Johnson as leader of the Conservatives, and leader of the country.

Over the past week, Conservative MPs have been voting in a series of ballots to whittle the number of potential leadership candidates down with one candidate (the one with the least votes eliminated after each ballot).

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 13: Conservative leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt addresses the media and supporters during a press conference to launch her bid to become the next Prime Minister, on July 13, 2022 in London, England. Mordaunt, Conservative MP for Portsmouth North, is now one of eight contenders who achieved the necessary 20 nominations by the 12 July deadline and proceeds to the first ballot this evening. She is the favourite in polling conducted by political blog ConservativeHome. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The final two candidates will be known by Thursday and then Conservative Party members (around 200,000 people) will vote for their favorite.

Mordaunt has made it to the last three after another vote by MPs on Tuesday. In the fourth ballot, Mordaunt got 92 votes, putting her in second place to former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak (one of the favorites to win) who got 118 votes, while Foreign Secretary Liz Truss got 86 votes as she gained ground on Mordaunt.

Kemi Badenoch, a former minister for local government and then for women and equalities, was eliminated after receiving 59 votes.

The leadership race has not been plain sailing for Mordaunt with the politician seen as giving a mediocre performance in Sunday night’s televised debate between the contenders (Sunak was seen in a snap poll by Opinium of 1,001 people as performing best), and while popular at a grassroots level she has not enjoyed universal support from her fellow Conservative MPs.

One of the biggest bugbears and points of contention for some MPs has been Mordaunt’s stance on trans rights with the politician embroiled in a furor over whether she supported controversial changes to the Gender Recognition Act that would have made gender self-identification for trans people a de-medicalized and easier process on one hand, but one which could have far-reaching implications for women and girls in terms of the protection of single-sex spaces.

Mordaunt claimed in recent days that she had not supported gender self-id although leaked government papers reported by The Times suggested she had backed the watering-down of the medical process for legally transitioning.

Mordaunt has claimed she has been the victim of “smears” while her campaign team have said it is a “major disappointment” that the leadership race has been distracted by what was described as a “side issue.”

If Mordaunt can make it to the final two candidates then the rest will be decided upon by the Conservative Party membership — who could easily have a very different view on the leader they’d prefer to run the country than the parliamentary party members.

Mordaunt has traditionally been seen as popular with grassroots activists but whether that popularity has waned as a result of controversy around her remains to be seen.

A poll of 851 Conservative Party members by website Conservative Home on Saturday put Kemi Badenoch ahead of the pack with 31% of the vote. Truss was in second place with 20% of the vote, Mordaunt had dropped to third place with 18%, followed by RIshi Sunak. The poll is several days old, however and essentially ancient history in the fast-moving world of British politics.

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