Swimsuits and innuendo: Britain's new female Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt was promoted from international development secretary after Gavin Williamson was summarily sacked as defence secretary following an inquiry into a leak from the government's National Security Council.
Penny Mordaunt was promoted from international development secretary after Gavin Williamson was summarily sacked as defence secretary following an inquiry into a leak from the government's National Security Council.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Best-known for sporting a swimsuit on television and for her strident support for Brexit, Penny Mordaunt made her public debut on Friday (May 3) as Britain's first female defence secretary.

The 46-year-old's appointment this week continues a rapid rise through the ranks that has fuelled speculation that she might run for Prime Minister Theresa May's job when the time comes.

For now, however, she says she is "delighted" to take a role for which she has rare experience and which she is said to have been long angling for.

Mordaunt was promoted from international development secretary on Wednesday after Gavin Williamson was summarily sacked as defence secretary following an inquiry into a leak from the government's National Security Council.

She took her place alongside military chiefs and Prince William at a ceremony at Westminster Abbey in London on Friday marking 50 years of Britain's at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Unlike many Cabinet ministers, Mordaunt has experience in her brief: she is a Royal Navy reservist and has served as a junior defence minister.

Her father was a paratrooper, who reportedly named her after a World War II cruiser, HMS Penelope, and she also represents the naval city of Portsmouth.

 
 
 

Most voters know Mordaunt for her strong support for Brexit in the 2016 referendum campaign.

However, she drew criticism for repeatedly saying Turkey was about to join the EU and that Britain would not be able to veto the move - a claim dismissed as "completely wrong" by the then Prime Minister David Cameron and EU leaders.

Her continued enthusiasm for leaving the bloc has prompted reports she could quit the government over May's handling of Brexit, but has made her popular with grassroots members of the Conservative Party.

She first came to national prominence in 2014 when she took part in celebrity television diving show "Splash!", where she donated some of her appearance fee to services charities.

Footage of Mordaunt hitting the water in a painful-looking belly flop has been widely shared on social media since her appointment.

But she is not afraid of controversy - in a House of Commons debate, she once spoke of being taught in the navy of "how to care for the penis and testicles in the field".

In 2013, she delivered a speech about Easter and poultry, reportedly a response to a bet by navy colleagues to use the work "cock" as many times as she could in Parliament.

Prior to being elected to Parliament in 2010, Mordaunt had a career in media, which included a stint as head of foreign press for George W. Bush's 2000 US presidential campaign.

Williamson had a mixed record in the job, drawing widespread mockery for telling Russia to "go away and shut up" but also winning respect among many in the armed forces for securing more funding.

Mordaunt is expected to maintain the fight for a bigger budget in a forthcoming spending review.

On assuming the post, she said: "It is an honour and privilege to work with the best armed forces and defence civilians in the world."