Tories are the underdog in the election, Mordaunt says, as she calls for party to ignore polls and rally

Penny Mordaunt has issued a rallying call to beleaguered Tories across the UK that the election result is “not a foregone conclusion” – but conceded that her party is now very much “the underdog”.

With many seeing Ms Mordaunt as a leader in waiting after a Tory defeat, she admits she felt “let down” by Rishi Sunak over the D-Day fiasco, which hit the headlines just hours before she was due to take part in a televised debate.

But she also made it clear that she wants to see tax cuts, in a message to her party as well as the country.

The Tory cabinet minister gave a wide-ranging interview to The Independent from her bellwether constituency of Portsmouth North. Ms Mordaunt won the seat from Labour on her second attempt in 2010, and has increased her majority in each election since. In the interview, she addressed:

  • The inside story of how she reacted when she learnt that the prime minister had left the D-Day commemorations early

  • Why she believes the Tories need to be pushing tax cuts

  • Why the polls could be wrong

  • How she deals with misogyny in politics

  • How she prepared for the TV debates

Penny Mordaunt is seen by many as a leader in waiting (ITV)
Penny Mordaunt is seen by many as a leader in waiting (ITV)

Apart from Mr Sunak, Ms Mordaunt has been the only cabinet minister the Tories have trusted to stand front and centre in the election campaign with her two appearances in the seven-way party debates.

When news broke on 6 June that Mr Sunak had left the D-Day events in Normandy early, Ms Mordaunt was campaigning in Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy, where the liberation of Europe was planned and launched.

She had attended the events in Portsmouth the day before, and was getting ready for the first of the two televised debates, which was due to take place the following day. Her first statement on the debate that Friday was extraordinary, declaring that the prime minister had been “wrong”.

Ms Mordaunt shares a moment with Angela Rayner after the first televised debate (BBC)
Ms Mordaunt shares a moment with Angela Rayner after the first televised debate (BBC)

“I felt the same as every one of my constituents,” she told The Independent. “And that was that we were let down, and I think the prime minister rightly apologised for that.”

Portsmouth prides itself on being Britain’s “most patriotic city” and is full of Royal Navy veterans who have served around the world as well as being home to current serving personnel. Ms Mordaunt, who is in the Royal Navy Reserve herself, described her reception when she met veterans a few days later.

“I’ve been out at a veterans’ event since, because we had the 42nd anniversary of the Falklands war [on Friday],” she said. “And so I was out with a lot of them then, and I got a very warm response from them.

“I think it is what it is. I’m sure that the prime minister, if he could turn back time, would do something different. It’s done, and he was just right to apologise. There’s nothing else that he could have done, I think, in that circumstance.”

The campaign has seen many setbacks for the Conservatives right from the start, when the nation watched the prime minister get drenched as he announced a snap election in a rain-sodden Downing Street.

But with less than three weeks to go, Ms Mordaunt still believes her party can turn its fortunes around.

“We are the underdog, yes,” she said. “There are lots of pundits, and some politicians, saying it’s all a foregone conclusion. Of course, it’s not. It’s going to come down to what people do with their votes – and I’m fighting for my city, and I’m going to carry on fighting until the polls shut.

“We’re getting a really good response from people [on the doorstep in Portsmouth]. We’ve helped a lot of people, and they know who I am, and what I’ve done, and what I stand for.”

The D-Day 80th anniversary in Portsmouth, Ms Mordaunt’s constituency (AP)
The D-Day 80th anniversary in Portsmouth, Ms Mordaunt’s constituency (AP)

She added: “A poll is a poll. It’s just statistics, but it’s not reflected from our experience on the doors here.”

Ms Mordaunt laughed at the idea that she is a “celebrity politician”, but admits that fame has its advantages.

“People know me,” she explained. “I don’t have to introduce myself, but it’s been great. And it’s just been really pleasant, actually chatting to people, and I think we’ve been offering the right things.”

She is also clear that taxes are the way for the Tories to turn things around, even though a Techne UK poll for The Independent revealed that trust in her party over the issue has collapsed.

In an apparent message to her party leadership, she also pushed for tax cuts after reports that cabinet ministers had pushed for more in the manifesto.

“There are some blue skies ahead, and now’s the point where we need to go further on those tax cuts,” she said. “As the campaign has gone on, people have been raising concerns back to me. There’s distrust there, because of Labour’s previous record of being in government and what they’ve done elsewhere.

“[Labour’s] taxes – that’s always bitten this city hard. With fuel duty, [there are] traders here, freight is important here, and people remember Labour’s fuel duty escalator – and we’ve frozen fuel duty for 14 years because we understand that is critical, not just to motorists and freight, but to people’s supermarket bills as well.”

Ms Mordaunt says Rishi Sunak ‘rightly’ apologised for leaving the D-Day commemoration early (Sky News)
Ms Mordaunt says Rishi Sunak ‘rightly’ apologised for leaving the D-Day commemoration early (Sky News)

She insists that her city’s experience of a Labour government before 2010 is why she believes that her party needs to keep fighting to the end.

“I feel really strongly about stopping a Labour government. Last time they were in power, it meant, here in Portsmouth, we had the worst MRSA infections in a hospital in the country; [we had the] worst maths results. We had raw sewage running off Portsdown Hill. We had terrible flooding.

“Cosham town centre was underwater in the winter. We had 600 kids playing truant for more than six months out of the school year. It was terrible, and taxes were high. We had tax-credit maladministration. It was awful.”

She is less willing to address the future beyond 4 July though, including her own potential leadership ambitions or the possibility of Nigel Farage joining the Tories.

“It really isn’t about us, you know, as individual politicians. It’s about the country, and it’s about my community.”

While Ms Mordaunt is not pencilled in for any more TV debates, she said she is willing to go into battle again if there is a “Deploy! Deploy! Deploy!” command from CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters).

She insists there was little preparation ahead of her appearances, which saw her dominate both debates with ferocious attacks on Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner.

“I’m not particularly precious,” she said. “I know what I want to say and just go for it.”

And Ms Mordaunt has sought to quash speculation that her hair – which became a social media phenomenon during the first debate – was a deliberate tactic.

“I’m afraid no thought went into it whatsoever,” she explains. “On both occasions, someone else did my hair. I had other things to concentrate on.”

After her second debate, The Independent revealed some of the misogynistic comments made on a Tory members’ Facebook group about her. But Ms Mordaunt shrugs such comments off.

“I tend not to worry about these kinds of things,” she said. “But look, I’m a 51-year-old woman, I’ve had a fair deal in my lifetime, but it shouldn’t stop you doing anything. I don’t give it a second thought.”