Amber Rudd faced a challenging debut giving a Party Conference speech as Home Secretary for two main reasons.
First of all she was tasked with jollying everyone along about Brexit even though she had been such an emphatic Remain campaigner (her brother Roland is Captain Europe).
During one of the TV debates just before the vote I felt sorry for her as she recited personal attacks on Boris Johnson – that had so obviously been written by others and that she delivered with such discomfort.
In his memoirs the Downing Street press officer Sir Craig Oliver boasts:
“Amber delivers the line I wrote for her: ‘There are lots of numbers flying around in this debate but it seems to me the only number Boris cares about is No 10.’ “
She then went on to say:
“Boris, you’re the life and soul of the party, but I’m not sure I’d want you driving me home at the end of the night.”
Given her high Remainiac profile she sensibly chose to defuse her dubious past with good humour rather than try to ignore it:
“It’s no secret that earlier this year I campaigned on behalf of the Remain side in the EU Referendum.
I travelled the country setting out my views and reasons.
I sparred with the Foreign Secretary live on television …
Now he keeps offering me lifts in his car.
But it comes down to the fact that the British people made their wishes very clear, and I absolutely accept the result.”
The second difficulty is having her predecessor as her boss.
Rudd can’t just sweep in and declare that there are going to be some changes and that she will be running everything differently from now on. “It’s not so easy for anyone to take over your boss’s job,” Sir Eric Pickles said introducing her. “But Amber is one of the stars of this Government and I am very proud to call her my chum.”
Again I thought this was handled tricky matter was well handled the new Home Secretary. Rudd paid a strong tribute to Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office. Of course simply surviving as Home Secretary for six years is a huge achievement. May was the longest serving occupant of that great but perilous office of state But the speech also got across a message that Rudd would be busy with new initiatives. Certainly the Prime Minister will keep a close eye on what takes place – but then Rudd’s cabinet colleagues might reflect that they are not exactly give a free hand either.
Of course May would not pretend that it is mission accomplished on ending domestic violence, or modern slavery, or child sexual abuse, or forced marriage or Female Genital Mutilation. Rudd spoke powerfully about carrying on the work to defeat all these evils.
So a well judged speech.
My own concern is that in her eagerness to stress that she “got the message” from the EU referendum over immigration is that she got the wrong one. The message was about taking “control of our borders”. It was part of a broader point about wanting us to be a self governing country. That is not the same as being anti immigration – although it so happens that most people would prefer to have lower immigration overall. But as Tim Montgomerie has noted in Australia and New Zealand per capita immigration is high “without the political angst – because voters know the tap is under democratic control.”
Our present immigration policy is discriminatory. There is an open door for the (mostly white) people in the EU and a much tighter policy for the rest of the world. You don’t have to be anti immigration to see that makes no sense. We should admit people on merit adjusting according to circumstances.
Rudd made reference to her constituents in the seaside town of Hastings and their “legitimate concerns” about immigration. Most of them voted to Leave the EU and she is surely right to reflect that there is a link between the two.
But the real anxiety was that it was out of control. Partly this is over illegal immigration – and Rudd offered some proposals to address this. Mainly it is about free movement in the EU. Once we have control of our borders we can ensure that those who come here obey the law, speak English, create wealth, provide skills and work hard. It might then transpire that the anti immigration sentiment might not prove quite as strong as is supposed.