Penny Mordaunt has dismissed claims about her views on trans rights as “smears” – as former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith questioned whether the trade minister is experienced enough to be prime minister.
Ms Mordaunt is under scrutiny for her stance on gender self-identification, after leaked government documents suggested she had supported watering down the legal process for transitioning.
In the first televised debate on Friday, former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who also has responsibility for equality issues, claimed Ms Mordaunt had backed a push for self-ID for those who wish to transition.
They said that together they had reversed the policy.
But Ms Mordaunt strongly challenged the claims. She said that while she had ordered a review of the Gender Recognition Act, she was not in favour of self-identification and would “not have divorced it from healthcare”.
However, The Sunday Times said it had seen government papers which appeared to suggest she was in favour of removing at least one element of the medical process required for transgender people to legally transition.
A spokesperson for her campaign hit back: “The fact that so much of this contest has been distracted by side issues instead of the cost of living crisis impacting millions of people, is a major disappointment.
“Arguing about policy is one thing, but questioning Penny’s values and integrity must be challenged.
“To be clear, on the issue of self ID, leaked documents prove that all ministers in the department wanted to maintain medical involvement, including Penny. Other ministers can back this up.”
Probed on the matter on Sunday, Ms Mordaunt herself denied the reports that she had pushed through the policy to end the requirement for trans people to obtain a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before they could legally change gender when she was equalities minister in Theresa May’s government.
She also accused the papers of “smears” and said the Conservative leadership contest is being “dragged down” by it.
“This has been rebutted many times. We all know what is going on. This is the type of toxic politics people want to get away from,” Ms Mordaunt told BBC’s Sunday Morning programme.
“We did a consultation. We asked healthcare professionals what they thought about the situation. That is the section I looked after. I managed that consultation. We didn’t actually on my shift produce a policy.
“There is a number of smears going on in the papers. My colleagues are very angry and upset that this is how the leadership contest is being dragged down.”
Ms Mordaunt was backed by Baroness Williams, who was junior equalities minister at the time, and said the accounts of events given at the hustings and in the media were “completely incorrect”.
“As minister for equalities in the department under both Penny Mordaunt and Amber Rudd I saw first hand that the position stated was absolutely not Penny Mordaunt’s and completely refute the allegations made by other candidates about the self ID debate,” she said in a statement.
“Having sat in the Equalities Office for many years, I am shocked to see such incorrect reporting and briefings by our colleagues and would question the motives of those seeking to do so.”
Meanwhile, former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith – who is backing Ms Truss in the leadership contest – questioned Ms Mordaunt’s record in government.
He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “The one person I don’t know what her achievements are is Penny (Mordaunt). I don’t have any problem with her, I have no issues at all.
“But for me the key thing is we’re not electing a leader of the Conservative Party that has two years to build their reputation, we are electing someone who will be prime minister on day one.
“So you need to know when they had power and authority in government, what did they do with it, what did they get, what did they achieve, what were their main beliefs, what did they drive through, what tough decisions did they have to take, and actually they have to sometimes go against their civil servants to get these things done.”
A new poll of Tory party members by ConservativeHome has Ms Badenoch ahead with 31% of those polled, with a commanding leader over second-placed Ms Truss on 20%.
Then comes Ms Mordaunt on 18%, who has dropped from first place, followed by Rishi Sunak and Tom Tugendhat.