Penny Mordaunt is the new U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Crown Copyright / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has a new secretary of state: Penny Mordaunt.

Mordaunt, who was moved from her position as minister of state for the Department of Work and Pensions to take the job, was appointed by Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday, following the shock departure of Priti Patel on Wednesday evening.

By the morning, Mordaunt had emerged as a frontrunner to replace Patel, with observers noting that, as a pro-Brexit, female MP, her appointment would help the prime minister maintain the current political and gender balance within her cabinet.

A former Royal Naval reservist, she had also been seen as a contender to replace Sir Michael Fallon as defence secretary after he quit last week.

The aid community officially welcomed the new DFID head, and some mentioned her previous humanitarian experience as potentially making her a good replacement. However, others, speaking to Devex on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, expressed frustration that candidates such as Alistair Burt and Rory Stewart, who both have experience as DFID junior ministers and have demonstrated commitment to development, were overlooked.

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Patel, who had held the post since July 2016, resigned following revelations she may have breached the ministerial code of conduct by holding unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials during a holiday to the country in August. She subsequently asked DFID staff to explore cooperation with the Israeli aid agency and army, as the BBC reported.

Members of the U.K. aid community told Devex on Thursday morning they were hoping for a replacement to be found swiftly, to minimize the time lag in pushing ahead with development priorities. DFID needs “strong leadership,” they said, and someone who could hit the ground running.

Mordaunt, the 44-year-old Conservative MP for North Portsmouth, was elected for the first time in 2010. She became the first female minister of state for the armed forces in 2015.

According to Mordaunt’s Twitter feed, she has some development experience. She also spent time working in hospitals and orphanages in Romania between school and university.

Via Twitter

In a speech given during a charity conference on Wednesday night, before her appointment, Mordaunt appeared to position herself as a champion of UK aid.  

During her address, which was to mark the launch of a new think tank, Charity Futures, she referred to her “former profession as someone who worked and volunteered in … the third sector,” and was full of praise for “the British aid workers I worked with in the former eastern bloc,” whom she described as “beacons of our common humanity.”  She also referred to British charities as “the fundamental fabric of our communities and our national identity.”

Her experience in the charity sector includes a position as director of strategy, policy and partnerships at Diabetes UK.

She is also known for taking part in a reality television show in 2014, and donating her winnings to charity.

In a statement sent to Devex, Kate Osamor, the Labour shadow secretary of state for International Development, congratulated Mordaunt on her appointment and called on her to “quickly commit to the central cause of the department: to help the world's poorest,” and to also “unequivocally commit to the spirit, as well as the letter, of Britain's pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international development.”

Osamor said the new secretary of state needs to “face down those in her party who want to merge DFID into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.”

ONE’s U.K. Director Romilly Greenhill said Mordaunt’s “past experience as an aid worker and volunteer” made her a good fit for the job.

“Penny’s experience as an aid worker and volunteer means she is ideally suited for her new role. Her recent advice to not let pessimism and cynicism distract us from eradicating the problems that cause poverty and disease resonates with the British public,” she said.

“ONE and its members wholeheartedly pledge their continued support and assistance to Penny and her dedicated staff and wish her every success,” Greenhill added.

Alex Thier, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute, said: “We look forward to working with her and her team to ensure DFID and the U.K. continues to play a leading role in tackling global challenges such as extreme poverty, conflict, and climate change.”

Tamsyn Barton, the head of Bond — the U.K. network for organizations working in international development — also welcomed Mordaunt to her new role, which she described as coming at a time when “the U.K. seeks to establish a new global identity” after last year’s Brexit vote.  

“The incoming secretary of state must provide leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring that no one is left behind, tackling global challenges affecting the poorest, including climate change, and ensuring that economic development is inclusive,” Barton said.

Molly Anders contributed reporting to this story.

Update, Nov. 9: This story was updated after Mordaunt’s appointment was officially announced.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.