In the past week Penny Mordaunt MP, Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women & Equalities and former defence minister, performed (in the opinion of many Mumsnetters) one of the most abysmal Mumsnet webchats ever, now held in perpetuity in the influential website’s digital annals. (I wrote about it here.) The focus of the ensuing disappointment and ire has understandably been on her apparent disregard for sex-based protections and rights for women, and the safeguardng of children of both sexes, and her odd comments about the meaning of ‘mother’. Additionally there remains another nugget buried deep in the motherlode of Mordaunt’s thought-mine of doom, which goes to the heart of her credibility.
Turkey and the UK veto. Ring any bells? It led to headlines such as the Guardian’s ‘David Cameron suggests defence minister [Mordaunt] is lying over Turkey joining EU’.
Here’s the question(s) that Penny Mordaunt was asked on Mumsnet:
During the Brexit campaign, you repeatedly said that the UK couldn't stop Turkey from joining the EU. This was a huge lie. A lie I heard many people repeat in the run-up to the referendum. So my questions are: Why did you say that? Are you ashamed of the lies you told to get people to vote Brexit? Do you think deliberately lying in politics is acceptable or democratic?
It’s a good three-part question from the Mumsnet poster and given that Mordaunt ignored other important questions asked of her during this non-live webchat (for example, about her own supposed investigation into a major issue affecting girls), it was a surprise to see her attempt an answer to this one.
Here’s Penny Mordaunt’s complete answer:
I said that because I believed there was a risk of Turkey joining the EU and Britain not being able to veto this due to the public statements made by the Government, including the Prime Minister, at the time.
I’ll explain my thinking. Our former Prime Minister David Cameron set out the case for Turkey’s membership of the EU in a video that emerged in 2016, saying “I am here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the European Union and to fight for it… I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership and for greater influence at the top table of European diplomacy. This is something I feel very strongly and very passionately about. Together I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels…”
He went on to draw a parallel between Britain and Turkey by mentioning how Britain was initially vetoed from joining the Common Market in 1973 by France.
He added: “We know what it’s like to be shut out of the club. But we also know that these things can change”
I do not believe having given that assurance to a key NATO partner Britain could have ever vetoed their membership.
During the referendum campaign some said we didn’t need to worry about our veto, as other countries would use theirs. I was not reassured. In addition, during the campaign, as Turkey’s human rights abuses escalated, rather than warn them such authoritarianism would exclude them from the club, the EU chose to speed up the process of Turkey’s accession.
So let’s enjoy a little historical retrospection and commentary.
‘a video that emerged in 2016, saying “I am here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the European Union and to fight for it…’
This is disingenuous. The ‘video’ wasn’t actually from 2016. It was footage from 27 July 2010. And it wasn’t some kind of secret video that only ‘emerged’ six years later. It was an open and public speech given by the Prime Minister David Cameron in Ankara, Turkey - the Leader of Mordaunt’s own political party - which had been clearly signalled to the media in advance by press releases and briefings, and which was heavily reported on at the time by major British news outlets such as the BBC, The Guardian and The Telegraph. David Cameron spoke from a prepared script, and the transcript was made available on the Government’s website Gov.uk on the same day as his speech and been there ever since. It is inconceivable that Mordaunt, at that time an MP, could have remained ignorant of Cameron’s speech and the news reports around it. So why say to Mumsnet that it ‘emerged’ in 2016?
By the 4th May 2016, again in the harsh glare of media scrutiny, David Cameron had already completed a full U-turn on his hopeful position regarding Turkey’s possible accession to the EU. Turkey hadn’t made the grade. Penny Mordaunt, by this time a defence minister, would have been very well aware that at the beginning of May that David Cameron - her boss, the Prime Minister - had declared that Turkey was ‘decades away’ from joining the EU.
Yet what did Penny Mordaunt actually say in the weeks leading up to the EU Referendum, where she, like her associate Boris Johnson, were actively and vociferously campaigning for the official ‘Leave’ campaign (while, according to some sources, allowing Leave.eu, the Arron Banks set-up, to do their dirty work)?
Famously, on the 22nd May 2016 Penny Mordaunt appeared on the Andrew Marr show, an essential piece of political window dressing on Sunday mornings. Her interview has been described over and over again in the public domain as ‘lying’ and ‘lies’ - and it is archived on You Tube and various other websites, along with later footage and media reports of David Cameron furiously contradicting her during an interview with Robert Peston.
The exchanges she had with Andrew Marr show her unequivocally denying the existence of the British veto (see for example 1.40 in, full BBC transcript here.)
Andrew Marr: ‘the British Government does have a veto on Turkey joining - we don’t have to let them join’.
Penny Mordaunt: ‘No, it doesn’t. We are not going to able to have a say ...’
Andrew Marr: ‘I thought accession is something each country could veto if it wanted to.’
Penny Mordaunt: ‘No’
Mordaunt then went on seemingly to suggest that a Referendum vote would act as the ‘veto’ that she had just erroneously said the UK did not have. She also failed to mention then to Andrew Marr, when questioned, anything of the excuses she later hawked on the Mumsnet webchat. And yes, I do hold it against her. She appeared then and she appears now, to many observers including the users of Mumsnet (‘14 million unique users a month’) to be acting either ignorantly or duplicitously - neither of which is a good look for a Secretary of State with greater ambition (as Boris Johnson demonstrated when he started to make Michael Gove look good).
Cameron hit back at Mordaunt on media; and I’m personally of the opinion she only got away with it because Cameron resigned so quickly after the result of the ‘advisory’ Referendum. If he’d won, and/or if he’d stayed, she could well have been ministerial toast.
Penny Mordaunt’s webchat answer about Turkey and the UK’s veto on Mumsnet is interesting and illuminating. One might be tempted to ask of the Secretary of State and Minister for Women, are you now lying about why you lied?
And if so, what on earth can women believe that comes from Penny Mordaunt’s pen, keyboard or out of her mouth? Does she any credibility left? Why should we believe her definitions and non-definitions of woman, mother, parliamentary equality, and child safety? Mordaunt’s actions and words since the Referendum on the matter of her role in the official Leave campaign have also attracted some disdain from political writers. Tom Peck, a political sketch writer with The Independent, accused her of ‘sidestepping all of the evidence’ during a speech he saw as the ‘latest attempt by a Tory Brexiter to unburden themselves from the heavily soiled consequences of their actions’.
Penny, you looked on the surface terribly calm and collected when you raised your left hand and denied the truth, and told Andrew Marr that the UK didn’t have a veto regarding Turkey, when the UK did. You and your associates collectively used negative images of Turkey and the Turkish people for your own political ends, horrible images which I’m not going to bother reproducing here. You were instrumental in creating a narrative which turned Turkey into a trope of fear, a motif of danger - unfairly and wrongly. That’s just not cricket. You’ve actually got people wondering if you are really that far removed from Arron Banks and his belief that ‘facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success’?
I have a horrible feeling that you believe that you could sell snake-oil; but I’m not buying any of it.
Acknowledgements My thanks to Mumsnet, and all the erudite posters of Mumsnet, and Justine Roberts CBE for setting up the webchat with Penny Mordaunt; thanks also to all to journalists and media contributors whose work is linked to above; and wiki commons.