Penny Mordaunt replaces Priti Patel as the UK’s new international development secretary © AFP

Penny Mordaunt’s progress to being appointed as the UK’s new international development secretary this afternoon was inexorable. The 44-year-old junior minister was the only viable candidate to slot easily into Priti Patel’s vacated position at the cabinet table. She has ministerial experience and, like her predecessor, is a strong supporter of Britain’s exit from the EU. As a former aid worker in Romania, she has at least some experience of the brief, too.

Unlike the controversial appointment of Gavin Williamson as defence secretary last week, Theresa May has made a safety-first choice that pleases her MPs. Ms Mordaunt is well-liked across all wings of the parliamentary Conservative party: one MP describes her as “excellent, a really able person”; another says the appointment is “very well deserved”; another thinks “she'll be a perfect fit’’.

In promoting Ms Mordaunt, the prime minister has taken care not to disturb the delicate balance in the cabinet between those who supported Remain and Leave — the faultline that continues to define everything in British politics. The reality is that Mrs May’s administration is a coalition, not dissimilar to the 2010-2015 Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration, but this time within her own party. Her priority is to ensure that neither wings are discontented, as unhappiness can easily feed into a leadership challenge. 

Sarah Newton has replaced Ms Mordaunt in the below-cabinet disability brief. The promotion of Victoria Atkins to the Home Office is particularly notable. The first of the 2015 intake of Conservative MPs to enter ministerial office, Ms Atkins represents what much of the party is yearning for: fresh faces, untainted by the travails of Brexit and seven messy years in power.

“We need more women in government,” one former pale, stale cabinet minister remarks. The promotions of Ms Mordaunt, Ms Atkins and Ms Newton goes some way to show that Mrs May, long active in Tory circles in getting Conservative women elected to the Commons, grasps this. 

The ship might have been steadied for now but Mrs May still has some daunting challenges ahead: a difficult Budget on November 22, jump-starting the stalled Brexit talks, and ongoing speculation about her position. Boris Johnson’s continued failure to apologise for his gaffe about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen jailed in Iran, may spread cabinet controversies across the news agenda for days to come.

And the thirst for renewal within the Conservative party will not be wholly quenched by Thursday’s moves. “Penny was the obvious and smart choice,” says one influential Conservative MP. “But the prime minister has missed an opportunity to turn this crisis into a moment of renewal reflecting her values. Some bigger strategic cabinet moves would have shown a real determination to shape the political agenda and return every blow from her critics with a counterpoint of detoxifying modernisation”.

A wider cabinet reshuffle — along with a reboot of the government’s priorities — is risky but necessary. Her party has given her the authority to shake things up and, as we argued in a recent FT editorial, what does Mrs May have to lose? She cannot watch her authority and credibility seep away every day as new scandals and threats emerge. The prime minister must show she is first among equals.

Get alerts on Penny Mordaunt when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article