SARAH VINE: If Penny Mordaunt won’t stand up for the rights of women, she will never get my vote

There’s no denying that, as an antidote to Boris Johnson, Penny Mordaunt is a very plausible candidate. She has a compelling back story (state school, cared for her younger brother after her mother died of cancer), she was a Brexiteer, is a Royal Naval reservist – and we all know how she rocks a blow-dry.

She also hasn’t had an awful lot to do as minister for trade policy over the past couple of years, which means that while Johnson and his closest allies have been running themselves ragged dealing with the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, she has been honing her leadership bid (one MP told me she’s been working on it since Johnson was elected in 2019). They all look a bit sweaty and exhausted; she’s as fresh as a daisy – and not tainted by association.

And it’s working. She is now odds-on favourite to get down to the final two, and stands a good chance of beating Rishi Sunak.

Confusing: The trade minister rowed back on trans comments

Fair play to her. I can’t help applauding a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go out and get it. Mordaunt, like her two main rivals Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch, is someone a woman like me can admire. Tough, determined, focused. There’s just one problem.

While Truss and Badenoch have made it crystal clear where they stand on the vexed question of ‘what is a woman’, Mordaunt has been rather more circumspect.

Specifically, on the issue of whether she supports the right to self-identification for trans women – and therefore the eventual elimination of safe spaces for biological women such as hospitals, prisons and loos – she is still unclear.

There are many in the trans community who believe she does, based on her previous comments. She has even compared what she called the ‘culture war’ against trans people to the prejudice suffered by gay men in the 1980s. But yesterday in an interview she rowed back against that.

She suggested that the idea of ‘de-medicalising’ the process of transitioning – thus making it purely a question of self-identification – had never been hers in the first place and that she was merely supporting an existing policy proposed by Theresa May. She also told a caller to the radio station LBC this week that she was not in favour of self-identification.

But in 2018 she gave an interview to Pink News, clearly stating that as far as she was concerned: ‘Trans women are women’.

It’s all a little confusing: Does she or doesn’t she support the need for safe spaces for women or does she believe that the rights of self-identifying trans women trump those of biological females?

Penny Mordaunt is now odds-on favourite to get down to the final two candidates for Prime Minister, and stands a good chance of beating Rishi Sunak

I, for one, can’t work it out. Maybe she does believe that trans women are identical to biological women, but is just worried about how that will play in the Shires. Or maybe she did used to think that but has now modified her view, in which case fine but be honest about it.

Either way, it’s important that we know, because if she’s going to be the next PM she will hold the fate of thousands of vulnerable women and girls in her hands.

At a time when a majority of people say they are still in favour of single-sex loos; when sports governing bodies have finally woken up to the fundamental injustice of allowing people who have undergone male puberty to compete against biological females; when the rights of women in America to have control over their own bodies are under attack; and when a major independent review is warning of serious safeguarding issues in relation to the treatment of trans children, we need to know. We need to know whether the next prime minister is going to put the demands of a minority ahead of the needs of the majority female population of this country.

Whether she is going to compel expectant mothers to refer to themselves as ‘pregnant people’, or class women in labour as ‘birthing persons’. And whether she wants breastfeeding to be renamed ‘chestfeeding’.

Does she want biological males mowing down their female rivals on the sports field, or male-born prisoners sharing cells with vulnerable females? Does she think it’s wrong for concerned parents to question their child’s desire to take powerful puberty blockers?

If she does, that’s absolutely fine: Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to the right to express it. But if that is the case, and if she becomes the next leader of the party, then I’m afraid I for one won’t be voting Conservative at the next election.    

SARAH VINE: If Penny Mordaunt won’t stand up for the rights of women, and becomes the next leader of the party, then I’m afraid I for one won’t be voting Conservative at the next election

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