Amber Rudd opens the door to The Old Custom House in Hastings and pauses briefly; behind her is the cold grey continuum of sky and sea that frames Britain’s history, and somewhere beyond in the far distance: mainland Europe.
Every British schoolchild learns about this glowering stretch of sea. In 1066 Norman knights sailed their longships across from France and stormed ashore at nearby Pevensey beach, the last time foreign dominion was imposed on Britain. Never again would Britain be conquered — until 45 years ago when the country inexplicably agreed to surrender its sovereignty to a load of tassel-loafered bureaucrats in Brussels. Thanks to Brexit, Independence Day beckons and Britain will be a proper country again. Or so the Brexiters say.
The woman walking into this whitewashed seafood restaurant does not quite see it that way. Rudd, one of the most senior pro-Europeans in Theresa May’s cabinet, is at the forefront of the battle to stop a chaotic “no deal” exit on March 29.
With eight weeks to go, there is still no deal in sight. Our meeting place, with blackboards on the outside promoting fresh fish and oysters, is a respite from the feverish politics of Westminster.
I reflect that in almost 25 years of reporting on British politics, nothing has prepared me for the despair and division gripping the political class and indeed the country as a whole. Brexit has become the nation’s defining issue; it has turned Rudd’s Conservative party into a feuding rabble and the British political system upside down. “Extraordinary,” she agrees, in her cut-glass drawl. As she takes her seat at a plain café-style table, she sets out her stall.
“I feel no deal is a bad outcome and I feel we are getting too close to it,” she says. “I’m concerned it could happen by mistake. The government and all MPs have a responsibility to try to stop that.” Fine words, I think. But how?
Four years ago, the decision to go ahead with a Brexit referendum forced everyone to take sides, and Rudd backed the losing one. She not only took a high-profile part in the 2016 referendum campaign to keep Britain in the EU, but she is also publicly fighting to make sure Britain does not leave without a deal, fearing economic disaster if it does.
Bookies put the 55-year-old work and pensions secretary among the favourites to succeed the prime minister, Theresa May, but can an old-school Tory centrist really flourish in an era of political extremes? She has a tiny majority in a constituency that voted Leave, and the people who will choose the next Tory leader are a dwindling band of generally Eurosceptic Conservative party members.
In many ways, she seems better suited to the “chumocracy” era of David Cameron, who was lampooned for surrounding himself with fellow children of privilege. Her upbringing — born to a stockbroker father and a blue-blooded magistrate mother, and schooled at Cheltenham Ladies’ College — is classic old-school Tory. It all sounds pretty privileged, I say.
“You don’t really see it as a child, but yes, absolutely it was.”
She never had any hesitation in becoming a Conservative, describing herself as a “one nation” liberal Tory. But she inherited from her father one potentially fatal flaw in today’s Conservative party: she has always been a passionate European.
A tall figure in black flared trousers and black silk shirt, she looks out towards what claims to be Europe’s biggest beach-launched fishing fleet. She has chosen the venue partly to show me the new face of Hastings, an ancient port attached to a Victorian resort that has had years of decline and serious social problems. Rudd was re-elected in 2017 with a majority of only 346. “I love every one of them,” she says, laughing.
The vulnerability of her constituency to Labour has prompted some to suggest that the ambitious minister should do a “chicken run” and find a safer seat.
“Absolutely not,” she says. “I’m absolutely committed to Hastings.” We consider the menu, heavily focused on the fish hauled up on the adjoining beach. For starters, Rudd goes for the potted shrimp with crab mayonnaise while I choose the Hastings fishcakes. We both opt for a glass of Chablis.
Rudd insists that her priorities stretch way beyond Europe, listing women’s issues and “one nation Toryism” — “I believe in the state as a power for good” — as her main interests. “We have to look beyond who stands where on Europe,” she says. It is a somewhat vague manifesto that reflects how everything has been pushed to the sidelines by Europe. And, protest as she may, for most people her position on Europe is what defines her.
She says she is not seeking to reverse Brexit through a second referendum, painful as the rupture clearly is for her. “I regret it but I am reconciled to it,” she says. But would she back another referendum? “For now the thing is to move on to the next stage, not to another referendum. That’s a terrifying thought.”
Rudd stuck with the government line this week and voted against a move to legally block a “no deal” exit on March 29. She says she intends to fight against this outcome from inside cabinet, but has not ruled out quitting if “no deal” becomes government policy. Another key vote takes place in mid-February.
She has no idea if May will see through her threat to leave the EU on March 29. “The facts are facts. I think she is being very clear we are leaving if we don’t have a deal.” May’s friends say that only the prime minister — and perhaps her husband Philip — know if she really would drive the country’s economy off a cliff. It is madman theory for the 21st century.
Rudd first entered the nation’s consciousness at the referendum in 2016. Chosen by David Cameron to make the Remain case in a television debate, Rudd launched a stinging attack on Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s frontman, concluding that he was “not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening”. Was she sent in to take out Boris? “No, it comes naturally to me,” laughs Rudd, whose brisk, jolly-hockey-sticks style won rave reviews.
Her reward after the referendum was a promotion to home secretary in May’s new government. It was a big step up, and Rudd had the worst possible start, using the 2016 Tory conference to make a grossly misjudged speech on immigration, including a plan — hastily dropped — to force companies to list foreign employees.
It seemed to some colleagues to be blatant opportunism — an attempt to reach out to a Tory right that she had alienated during the referendum. “She’s a passionate European, she also wants to be PM,” says one cabinet colleague. “Her European position is the single biggest block.”
After that ill-fated populist move, Rudd reverted to type. During her time at the home office, dominated by five terrorist attacks, she attempted to soften the government’s immigration stance. In her new post at work and pensions, her first move was to review universal credit, blamed for leaving some poor families in dire straits.
Rudd now adopts a twin-track political approach, sticking to her centrist principles while keeping open lines of communication with the Brexiters who could soon run her party — and hold the key to her future career.
Surprisingly, Rudd and Johnson continue to have a good relationship, even after their referendum bust-up. “Want a lift?” Johnson shouts, whenever he sees her. The two meet up for private dinners and Rudd was even about to support Johnson’s chaotic bid for the Tory leadership in 2016, before it imploded.
What was going through her mind? “I was undeclared, I think, until I realised Theresa May was the right person,” she laughs, throwing back her head at the memory of that chaotic leadership contest. “I think many of us thought after the Brexit debate that it would be a Brexiter who would lead the party next.”
“She’ll definitely stand for the leadership,” says one friend. “But she probably won’t win.” Rudd could hope to be a kingmaker, throwing her backing behind a Eurosceptic frontrunner in the hope of landing the job of chancellor: a post never before held by a woman.
Will she stand? Rudd takes a sip at her glass of Chablis and reflects: “I just don’t know,” she says. “I’m not really thinking about it.” Nobody believes that — the whole Tory party is gearing up for a leadership contest.
Robbie, our waiter, is now bringing our main courses. Rudd has gone for Thai-style scallops and king prawns, which she says is “delicious” and “slightly spicy”, while I go for the main course version of the potted shrimps and crab, garnished with that ultimate seaside accompaniment: samphire.
We talk about what makes her tick. When I ask about her relationship with her brother Roland, a City PR mogul and New Labour backer, now fighting for a second EU referendum, she rebukes me: “All my life I feel slightly like it has been Roland or Adrian on my shoulder,” she says. Adrian is AA Gill, the late writer and Rudd’s former husband. “Amber is Adrian’s ex-wife or Roland’s sister. I’m not keen to be identified as either of those things.”
Surely she cannot feel she is defined like that today? After all, she has already risen from newly elected MP for Hastings & Rye in 2010 to home secretary in 2016; no other person in the postwar era has ever been promoted to one of the great offices of state in such a short space of time. “Well you’re asking me about it,” she says. “I still get it quite a lot.”
Something really outrageous happened on my watch. It had been going on for 20 years. Of course I wish I’d spotted it. Any home secretary would have had to resign
However, she is happy to talk about Gill, who died in 2016 after suffering what he called “the full English” of cancers, and with whom she has two children from their marriage from 1990 to 1995. Gill left Rudd for the model and journalist Nicola Formby, but she remembers him with great affection.
“He was an alcoholic and food was his whole passion in terms of his recovery,” she says. “He was a lovely man, clever, funny, entertaining, we had two children, then he buggered off. Immediately afterwards it was tough because it was so hurtful but after a few years we became friends again. He loved my career, was always trying to encourage me.” She sees a lot of him in their children: “Yes, my daughter likes to write. My son looks a lot like Adrian.”
Rudd was a single mother in her early forties when she decided to start out in politics. She had previously worked as a bond trader at JPMorgan, where she says bullying of younger staff was commonplace. On one occasion, she remembers a male colleague giving her a stack of porn videos and asking her to watch them and then give him a review. “It made no impact on me at all at the time, but of course it was ghastly and wrong.”
Later she had a chequered career in venture capital. She was a director of two companies based in the Bahamas in the late 1990s and was a co-director of Monticello, a scandal-hit company liquidated in 2003. “There were some successes, some that weren’t successes,” she says. She then worked as a City headhunter. Her black book is the stuff of legend; she famously used her contacts book to line up extras for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, earning a credit as “aristocracy co-ordinator”.
So why did she make the big career switch? “I think it was a growing confidence, actually. I hadn’t really thought about politics as a career in my twenties or early thirties. Bringing up children on my own was quite a busy time. But I wanted to take back control and I feel that’s what I did.”
Rudd’s private life is closely guarded, but I ask her about rumours that she has found — in the words of Fleet Street — “new love”. She looks embarrassed. “Where did you hear that?” she asks, then adds: “I’m very happy. I’m not going to say any more, I don’t want to put him off, for God’s sake.”
Rudd owes May for bringing her back into the cabinet last November only seven months after she resigned as home secretary over the Windrush scandal — the systematic mistreatment by her department of British citizens who were part of the wave of immigration from the West Indies in the 1950s.
Rudd inherited the “hostile environment” for immigrants from May, her predecessor as home secretary, but failed to get a grip on it. “Something really outrageous happened on my watch,” she says. “It had been going on for 20 years. Of course I wish I’d spotted it. Any home secretary would have had to resign.”
Yet May also owes Rudd, who stood in for the prime minister in a 2017 “leaders” general election debate because May refused to take part. Rudd’s father had died only two days earlier but pressed ahead with the engagement. Rudd also showed her loyalty to the prime minister during the catastrophic 2017 party conference, when May was assailed by a man handing her a P45 unemployment slip during her main speech, which then dissolved into a coughing fit.
“I grabbed the man by the arm and said could you leave NOW please,” recalls Rudd. When May’s coughing degenerated, Rudd jumped to her feet to start a standing ovation to give the prime minister time to clear her throat. “The rest of the cabinet were sitting there, stunned,” she recalls. “I just jumped to my feet and started clapping and told Boris: “Stand up!”
Brexit has raised tensions between the two of them, but May will perhaps soon be gone and Rudd will step out on the next stage of a career driven by a determination to prove that she is her own woman. As we leave the restaurant into the wintry gloom, fuelled by double espressos, Rudd reflects that the Old Custom House was a good choice for our lunch: a reminder of the days when Britain levied tariffs on trade from Europe. Those import taxes no longer exist, but could return on March 29 if the UK crashes out of the EU. “Maybe they’ll need it again,” she jokes, looking back at the old building. “I’m determined it should stay a restaurant.”
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.