Amber Rudd this week downplayed reports that she will back Boris Johnson in the Tory leadership race. She is unlikely to make a public declaration of her preference until the race is under way and we can see who the candidates are.
But she makes no secret of the considerations which will guide her choice. Since her return in November to the Cabinet, its soft Brexiteer members have looked much better organised.
Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell together broke a three-line whip and refused to vote against a motion to take no deal off the table. They defied collective responsibility and got away with it.
Their refusal to vote with the Government upset a considerable number of colleagues, and almost certainly leaves Rudd out of contention as a figure who could reunite the party when Theresa May steps down.
But whoever does take over as leader will need a team that embraces both wings of the party. And as one of the leading figures in the One Nation group, whose formation was announced by Nicky Morgan in her piece on ConHome on Monday, Rudd has a representative value, even if, as is probable, she could not persuade its 40 or so members to vote as a bloc.
A week before Morgan’s piece appeared, Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column that “we need to get back to explaining our One Nation Tory approach, and the vital symmetry between great public services and a dynamic free market economy….business can only flourish if the public sector creates the right seed-bed for growth: safe streets, high skills, good health care and the rest. One Nation Tories understand the need to satisfy both sides of the equation, and it is a profoundly moderate creed”.
He evidently proposes to unite the party by reaching out to One Nation Tories like Rudd. And she has indicated a certain receptivity to such an approach, for example in an interview for The Mail on Sunday last November, when she described herself and Johnson as “good friends”, and added that unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg, he is “not socially illiberal”.
She backed Johnson during his brief, ill-fated leadership bid in 2016 – having been deployed by the Remain campaign in the ITV television debate only a few weeks earlier, when she tried to derail Johnson by saying of him: “He’s the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”.
Since the 2015 general election she had been Energy and Climate Change Secretary, her first Cabinet post, but she did not demand the promise of a job in some future Johnson administration.
She wanted a commitment on climate change, which Johnson was happy to give, though after her request was fed in to his chaotic campaign, nothing happened.
Some Conservative MPs, especially those who are likely to support other leadership contenders, regard the idea of a Johnson-Rudd alliance as a cynical ploy, comparable to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as one of them put it, and no more likely to work than the alliance between Ken Clarke and John Redwood in the leadership contest of 1997.
Once Redwood had been knocked out, most of his supporters refused to transfer to Clarke, whose views on Europe they found repugnant. They instead decided to back William Hague, who came through and won.
But while it was hard to imagine that Clarke and Redwood had ever enjoyed each other’s company, Johnson and Rudd are old friends.
This opens them to the accusation that they would form, as another observer with a deep knowledge of the party puts it, “a poshocracy”.
It is certainly true that like Johnson, Rudd possesses, through her family, a remarkable range of connections. But she also wins golden opinions from a considerable number of Conservative MPs.
As Keith Simpson, a Norfolk MP since 1997, says:
“I think she is a highly intelligent, feisty woman, with great courage, wonderful and classy, descended on her mother’s side from an illegitimate child of Charles II. One can imagine casting her as the headmistress in a 1950s St Trinians film. She was very much part of the Cameron/Osborne group, but that didn’t really damage her with Mrs May. A lot of them were put to the sword, but she impressed by her command of detail, and was very good at baiting Boris during the referendum campaign. She’s like Michael Gove – she’ll happily stop and chat to you, ask you what are you doing, what are you reading. She passes the dinner party test – would you want to go to a dinner party with them – because it wouldn’t just be about her. She has a genuine interest in other people.”
Poshness, as long as it is progressive, can still work in the Conservative Party, as David Cameron demonstrated.
In January 1957, Harold Macmillan, a businessman by profession, a member of the ruling class by education and marriage, a progressive and an Anglican by conviction, an opportunist when required, seized the Conservative leadership from under the nose of Rab Butler.
Tory MPs of an imperialist outlook wanted to believe that the Suez debacle of late 1956 had not been a fatal blow to British prestige, and Macmillan managed to give them the impression that some kind of victory had occurred, and that they could still win the next general election.
Harold Wilson, who within a few years would become Labour leader, watched the new Prime Minister’s performance with admiration: “Macmillan is a genius. He is holding up the banner of Suez for the party to follow and is leading the party away from Suez. That’s what I’d like to do with the Labour Party.”
It is possible that the next Conservative leader will need, after the humiliations of Brexit, to do something similar. Macmillan led the party to a great general election victory in 1959, when it won almost 50 per cent of the vote by appearing more modern, and more efficiently devoted to the people’s welfare, than Labour did.
Rudd belongs in that progressive Conservative tradition, and is acutely aware of the need for an election victory, her majority in Hastings and Rye having shrunk in 2017 from 4,796 to 346.
Momentum activists from all over the south coast see the chance to turf her out by converging on Hastings.
In an earlier profile for ConservativeHome, I sketched Rudd’s early life, but omitted to mention that like her parents, she is an Anglican, who worships at St Mary Abbots in Kensington.
Her marriage to A.A.Gill, which ended in divorce but not acrimony, suggests she would not be deterred by the challenge of managing a highly gifted but not entirely reliable man.
Rudd is now, as Work and Pensions Secretary, in charge of the implementation of Universal Credit, a task to which she seems to be bringing a certain realism.
As Home Secretary, the post she occupied from July 2016 to April 2018, she was unseated by the Windrush scandal, during which it looked culpably naive of her not to have realised that her department would set targets for the removal of immigrants, and would try to meet these by picking on people who in no way deserved to be treated harshly, having lived peaceably and lawfully in this country for half a century.
She said she was unaware of any targets, after which a memorandum surfaced which had been copied to her office and which set “a target of achieving 12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18”.
The Guardian also published a letter from Rudd to the Prime Minister in which she spoke of an “ambitious but deliverable” target for deporting migrants. As soon as this came out, Rudd resigned.
Her defenders observe that the Home Office is an exceptionally difficult department to get any sort of control over, as shown by the large number of ministerial resignations from it over the years.
They add that it was her predecessor, May, who in 2010 established the “hostile environment” policy for immigrants, in the expectation that they would find it very difficult to prove that they had the right to remain, and could be pressured into leaving of their own accord.
Rudd’s critics say that because of her privileged background, she failed to understand the horrible predicament in which members of the Windrush generation had been placed, and the quite unreasonable demands for documentary evidence being made by the Home Office. Certainly the Home Secretary’s inexperience had been exposed.
It is by no means certain who Rudd will end up backing in the leadership contest. She could start by backing a member of the One Nation group, and switch in a later round to one of the other candidates.
But her endorsement will be eagerly sought, for she is respected beyond the circle of those who agree with her views on Brexit. Rees-Mogg told Sophy Ridge at the weekend: “I’ve always thought highly of Amber Rudd. She’s a long-standing friend of my sister’s as it happens and a person of first-class capabilities. I happen to disagree with her on the European issue.”
Not all Tory MPs are as charitable as Rees-Mogg about colleagues with whom they disagree. Rudd has deeply annoyed some on both the Remain and the Leave sides by that recent refusal, while a Cabinet minister, to vote with the Government.
Nor will some of her One Nation allies regard the prospect of Johnson as the next leader as in any way tolerable. And she herself might in the end decide to support Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt or some other contender.
Tory leadership contests are very seldom predictable, and a relatively untried and unknown figure such as Matt Hancock could come through, in a John Majorish way, as the stop Johnson candidate.
But Rudd is one of the few members of the present Cabinet who does not give the impression of having had her personality flattened by the sacrifices demanded by a ministerial career. Her support is worth having because she is her own woman.