Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday promoted a junior minister to replace ousted aid secretary Priti Patel, avoiding a major personnel shuffle and maintaining the delicate Brexit balance in her Cabinet.
The Conservative leader named Penny Mordaunt, a minister in the welfare department and a strong supporter of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, as her new international development secretary.
On Wednesday evening, Patel became the second minister to quit within a week, after a row over unauthorised meetings she had during a holiday to Israel in August, including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Patel is a prominent Brexit supporter, and some Conservative MPs had pressed for a replacement that would maintain the political — and gender — balance.
Mordaunt had initially been tipped to replace Michael Fallon as defence secretary when he quit on November 1 following allegations of sexual harassment, but that job went to one of May’s close aides, Gavin Williamson.
“The Queen has been pleased to approve the appointment of Penny Mordaunt MP as secretary of state for international development,” a statement from Downing Street said.
Mordaunt, a 44-year-old Royal Navy reservist, is the MP for Portsmouth, and served as a junior defence minister before becoming minister for disabled people last year.
Elected in 2010 after a career in business and media, including as head of foreign press for George W Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Mordaunt has cut a rather different path from many of her fellow MPs.
She took part in a celebrity television diving show in 2014, giving her appearance fee to a local swimming pool.
Prominent Brexit supporter and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg had earlier called for a replacement for Patel who was enthusiastic about leaving the European Union.
“As long as it’s somebody who has accepted that Brexit is happening and will support it properly...I don’t think there will be a problem,” he told the BBC.
But leading pro-European lawmaker Chuka Umunna, of the opposition Labour party, tweeted: “This is the same minister who falsely claimed Turkey was about to join the EU (during the referendum). Words fail me.”
May is grappling with crises on several fronts.
Her team is struggling to make headway in exit talks with the European Union, several ministers are embroiled in a wider sexual harassment scandal and her ability to command a majority in parliament is facing its most serious test. The instability in May’s top team adds to what is already a difficult political situation.
An ill-judged snap election in June cost her party its majority in parliament and has sapped her authority at a time when she is trying to heal deep divisions within her own party and negotiate Britain’s departure from the EU.
The European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator doused hopes that those negotiations were nearing a breakthrough, saying “major issues” must still be resolved on safeguarding citizens’ rights.
A fresh round of negotiations between Britain and the European Commission began yesterday.
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