LONDON — The last time Britain’s Conservative Party elected a new leader, Boris Johnson dominated the contest from wire to wire, a political celebrity so famous that many voters just called him Boris.
Three years later, the oddsmakers’ favorite is Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister so obscure that some voters have told pollsters that they confuse her with another single-name English star: the singer Adele.
Ms. Mordaunt’s sudden surge in popularity reflects the wide-open, topsy-turvy nature of the race. And it reveals the shadow that Mr. Johnson still casts over British politics. Ms. Mordaunt’s lack of association with the recently deposed prime minister is one of her calling cards: She promotes herself as a fresh start after the ceaseless drama of the past three years. Weary Tory lawmakers are responding.
Strictly speaking, Ms. Mordaunt, 49, is not the current front-runner: That status belongs to Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, who won the backing of 101 lawmakers in the second round of voting on Thursday. Ms. Mordaunt was second, with 83 votes. Conservative legislators will hold additional ballots early this week, before advancing two candidates to a vote of the party’s rank-and-file membership, the results of which will be announced in early September.
Provided she makes the shortlist of two, however, Ms. Mordaunt looms as a formidable contender. In a poll of members last week, she finished far ahead of Mr. Sunak in a head-to-head matchup. She also easily outpolled the No. 3 candidate, Liz Truss, who is Mr. Johnson’s foreign secretary and has refused to disavow him. Ms. Mordaunt, by contrast, is neither a Johnson loyalist nor an insurgent figure.
“She has the best of both worlds,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “She can’t be accused of disloyalty on the one hand, and on the other, she has sufficient distance from Johnson because she played such a minor role in government that she’s not tainted by association.”
Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College London, said Ms. Mordaunt’s low profile makes her an attractive blank slate. “No one knows what her views are, and so one can attribute one’s own views to her,” he said. “The same happens in spades, in regard to the queen.”
But Ms. Mordaunt’s swift rise has alarmed some critics, who say she is untested and thinly qualified for prime minister. A paratrooper’s daughter who serves in the Royal Naval Reserve, Ms. Mordaunt was defense secretary for two and a half months in 2019 and held a lesser cabinet post in charge of international development.
People who have worked with her describe her as charming and sincere, but not interested in the complexities of policy. She also has very little economic experience, at a time when Britain faces a once-in-a-generation cost-of-living crisis.
“She was honest and straightforward, and I thought she did care about international development,” said Alistair Burt, who was a minister in the international development department when she was there. “But it is a surprise — I wouldn’t have thought that she would be where she is.”
Whether she was equipped to be prime minister, Mr. Burt said he “genuinely wouldn’t know because she hasn’t been significantly tested.”
As Ms. Mordaunt’s profile has risen, the attacks on her have sharpened. David Frost, who resigned as Mr. Johnson’s Brexit negotiator last year, gave a scathing account of Ms. Mordaunt, who served as his deputy. He accused her of a poor grasp of detail and absence from her government department, and of being such a problem that he had asked the prime minister to move her to another job.
Like other hard-line Brexiteers, Mr. Frost has thrown his support behind Ms. Truss, who campaigned against leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum, but who has since converted to the cause with zeal. Ms. Mordaunt voted to leave, as did Mr. Sunak.
It is one of the paradoxes of this race that Brexiteers are opposing the two candidates who backed Brexit and are supporting the one who opposed it.
Not only did Ms. Mordaunt urge Britons to vote for Brexit, but she also played a minor, though memorable, part in the campaign by warning that Turkish migrants would flock to Britain when their own country joined the European Union, something she claimed Britain would be unable to block. The statement was erroneous: Britain, like other members, had a right to veto Turkey’s membership.
Brexit supporters regard her with suspicion for another reason: She voted for an ill-fated withdrawal agreement with the European Union negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May.
Ms. Mordaunt combines an interest in security and a military background with views on social issues that are mildly progressive by Tory party standards. She has spoken up in favor of the rights of transgender people, for example, a position that has gotten her into trouble with the culture warriors on the party’s right.
Seeking to defuse the issue, Ms. Mordaunt said last week that transgender women “are not biological women like me, but the law recognizes them in their new gender and that’s very simple and straightforward.”
In the cut-and-thrust of Tory politics, of course, it is neither.
During a televised debate on Friday evening, Mr. Mordaunt came under renewed pressure on the issue, with one of her opponents, Kemi Badenoch, questioning whether she had backtracked on her earlier position. Critics said Ms. Mordaunt’s performance was wobbly and unfocused.
Analysts said the unsettled nature of the contest had made it especially vicious. Mr. Sunak, the early front-runner, has come under attack by Mr. Johnson’s allies, who view his resignation less than two weeks ago, which set the stage for the prime minister’s downfall, as a betrayal. Mr. Sunak’s tax policy as chancellor was criticized by Jacob Rees-Mogg, with whom he sat in cabinet just days ago. Mr. Rees-Mogg refused to deny reports that he had described the policy, which included tax increases, as “socialist.”
“Rishi Sunak was always going to get it in the neck,” Professor Bale said.
Ms. Truss, who did not resign from Mr. Johnson’s cabinet, faces the danger of being the most closely associated with him. Critics said her campaign had gotten off to a less-than-stirring start. She is not viewed as a charismatic campaigner, despite her solid credentials. One Liberal Democratic lawmaker likened her to Hillary Clinton, while Ms. Mordaunt, the lawmaker said, more resembled Bill Clinton.
Unlike Ms. Mordaunt, Ms. Truss has significant economic experience. Yet Ms. Mordaunt’s weakness in that area has yet to hurt her campaign, despite the soaring inflation and specter of a recession that haunts Britain. A lack of focus on the future, analysts said, was another legacy of Mr. Johnson’s distracting tenure.
“He’s left the Conservative Party deeply confused because he was trying to hold together an electoral coalition that isn’t a particularly natural one,” Professor Bale said, referring to traditional Conservative voters in the south and working-class supporters in the north of England that Mr. Johnson won over from the Labour Party in 2019.
“It was always going to be a case of ‘après moi, le deluge,’” he added. “When Boris Johnson eventually was forced out, there was almost inevitably going to be chaos and bad feeling because of who he was and how he acted.”