Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd attends the National Police Memorial Service at St Paul's Cathedral in London, Britain September 25, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Passing the failure test: Amber Rudd could still make it to the top

A pro-European among Brexiteers, Amber Rudd has shown herself to be a flexible operator. If things go her way, could she be our next PM?
September 13, 2017

The true test of character, Amber Rudd once said, is how one handles failure.

It’s not the successes that count, but the ability to “adapt and focus your life in the right direction” when fate turns against you. The advice she gave to girls at her alma mater Cheltenham Ladies’ College isn’t original, but coming as it did shortly after losing the European Union referendum, it was surely heartfelt.

The Home Secretary’s own life—privileged upbringing, meteoric rise to cabinet, apparently seamless transition from favourite of David Cameron to trusted ally of Theresa May—looks remarkably untroubled by adversity. But appearances can be deceptive.

In the space of a year, the socially liberal Tory tradition to which she belongs and in which she had professionally flourished has fallen from grace. Tipped as a future leader of her party, she is nonetheless in some ways out of step with it; a Remainer in a pro-Brexit administration, a moderate and a pragmatist in a world where “centrist” is an insult. At times she has visibly struggled with these contradictions.

And that’s why her party conference speech this autumn matters. If she wants to rise higher, then Rudd can’t afford another car crash like last year, when, in the panicky aftermath of the referendum, she wound up floating (and then retracting) an idea that goes against all her instincts: forcing companies to reveal how many foreigners they hire, as if this were a source of shame.

“She’s good company; full of charm, but also full of steel, and very bright,” says a colleague who served in cabinet with her. “She’s confident, but not arrogant. In the post-Cameron era it was not a recommendation to have been close to George Osborne but she survived the transition to May. So the only thing that makes people think ‘hang on a second’ is that party conference speech. If she can give a really good speech this time it would assuage a lot of worries.” Her task is to show that when fate turns against her, she can adapt and focus, without betraying what she stands for.

*** Amber Rudd was born in 1963, the youngest of four children of the stockbroker and journalist Tony Rudd and his magistrate wife Ethne. It was a gilded childhood, spent between the family’s townhouse in Kensington and country mansion in Wiltshire; her mother’s side of the family descends, through layers of baronets, from an illegitimate child of King Charles II. (So far, so reminiscent of Cameron, that other son of a stockbroker and an aristocratic mother who served as a magistrate.)

The Rudds were great entertainers, throwing lavish weekend parties filled with politicians and corporate titans—the Tory MP and diarist Alan Clark was a family friend, Jeffrey Archer a client—at which her father would lead political arguments long into the night. And if politics was in the blood, then both Amber and her brother seem to have inherited Tony’s networking skills. Roland Rudd is an impeccably well-connected PR executive and lobbyist, while his sister is warm, gregarious and good fun, but adept at using her address book. In the 1990s she was paid to recruit well-bred friends as extras for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

As the baby of a big family often does, Rudd developed a certain cheery indestructibility early on, say her friends. “She was definitely a kind of leader, a strong personality. In another school she’d have been head girl,” says the novelist Emma Craigie, a contemporary at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, who recalls its regime as repressive. “But in this rather curiously horrible, restrictive atmosphere she was rebellious; a leader of rebelliousness, although in a good way.” On the day she left, Amber tied all the dining room chair-legs together to cause chaos at breakfast, a minor prank which nonetheless prompted her furious housemistress to tell her she would amount to nothing in life.

Yet she wasn’t naughty enough to compromise her results, and in a world where girls were often coy about success, Craigie recalls her as unabashedly competitive. “She wasn’t the kind who would hide her good marks. In a world where everybody was anorexic, and neurotic about their results, she just wasn’t like that.” She was, and is, comfortable in her own skin.

Rudd was disappointed not to get into Oxford, where both her parents studied, but read history at Edinburgh instead and there had what she calls her feminist awakening; in her third year she studied women’s history at the University of Pennsylvania, under a lecturer who urged her female students to do something meaningful with their lives. After a brief stint at the investment bank JP Morgan, the 24-year-old Rudd then became a director of her family’s investment vehicle Lawnstone, finding investors for start-ups. A succession of directorships followed.

But storm clouds were gathering. Her late father’s stockbroking firm Rowe Rudd was famously mould-breaking, challenging traditional practices in the Square Mile, but in doing so it evidently sailed too close to the wind. In 1988 a Department for Trade and Industry investigation into alleged asset-stripping at Greenbank Trust (an investment trust taken over by Rowe Rudd) concluded that Rudd and his business partner were “totally unfit to be directors” of any company. If she runs for leader, that history may return to haunt her, much as Cameron Sr’s tax-avoiding investment fund came back to haunt David with the publication of the Panama Papers immediately before his referendum fiasco.

The second setback in her life was more personal. In 1990, aged 27, Rudd married Adrian Gill, now better known as the late Sunday Times writer AA Gill. Clever and charming, he was nonetheless something of a wild card; nine years older, divorced from his first wife, and scraping a living as an artist after overcoming a near-fatal addiction to alcohol.

Friends credit Rudd with helping get his life on track; his big break in journalism came during their marriage, when Tatler magazine commissioned a piece on his time in rehab. The couple had two children, Flora and Alasdair, now in their twenties.

But after only five years of marriage, Gill left her for the ex-model Nicola Formby. At 32, Rudd found herself a single working mother of two small children.

It was a difficult time—for all her privilege she once described her thirties as purely about “keeping her head above water,” which is why she entered parliament later than she might otherwise have liked—but she has remained tight-lipped about the marriage and her subsequent private life. She was intent on creating what one family friend calls a quiet “sense of constancy” for the children, and stayed friendly enough with Gill that he joined her on the campaign trail when she finally fought her first unwinnable seat, Liverpool Garston, in 2005.

Like many despairing Tory modernisers during the Iain Duncan Smith era, Rudd was frustrated to find her party not just out of power but so very far from contending for it. She once said she resolved to enter politics because “it’s being done so badly at the moment.” But canvassing a city famously hostile to Tories was a bruising introduction to what they were up against. When the sitting Labour MP Maria Eagle introduced herself at the count, Rudd responded with feeling: “they certainly like you.” She impressed enough, however, to be selected shortly after for more winnable Hastings and Rye, taking it from Labour with a majority of 2,000 in 2010 and boosting her majority in 2015. This June, however, she squeaked home by only 345 votes. She will top Labour’s hit-list next time, a horribly vulnerable position for an aspirant leader.

A safe seat could doubtless be found if she wanted it. But running away from voters is never a good look; and besides, having to scrap for every vote in Hastings has helped shape her politics. What works in safe Tory seats like Cameron’s Witney cuts little ice in towns like this, where people aren’t so insulated from the effects of austerity, and that helps inoculate against complacency. “Having a marginal means you’ve got to get out there and talk to people, build a coalition, persuade them to switch. You have to understand what people are thinking,” says a fellow marginal MP.

This disarming quality is one key element in her success; put simply, people like her. Even her Labour opponent last time, the local council leader Peter Chowney, says while he disagrees with her politics “she’s easy to do business with” on a personal level. But the other factor is a certain steel.

Despite being one of the cabinet’s last surviving “heirs to Dave,” true believers in the husky-hugging moderniser philosophy, Rudd was never part of the Notting Hill set. Alongside figures like Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Priti Patel and Claire Perry, she belongs instead to the next generation; part of a new wave of Tory women who entered parliament in 2010.

More confident than their predecessors, they were unafraid of taking overtly feminist positions or occasionally challenging their seniors. Rudd stood out from the start as quick-thinking and practical, campaigning for compulsory sex education in schools and more opportunities for working women, and Osborne soon spotted her potential. In 2012, she became the chancellor’s PPS and protégé. Under his editorship, the Evening Standard advised readers to vote Tory in June because of “faces of the future” like Rudd and the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, whose fledgling friendship with Rudd—the two had drinks in Glasgow this summer—suggests a potentially powerful alliance emerging.

Within three years she was promoted to whip, then, in 2014, junior minister at the Department for Energy and Climate Change—where she worked tactfully around Tory climate change deniers—then cabinet minister for the same department, having caught Downing Street’s eye as a stout defender on sticky wickets. She was once interrupted in parliament, while defending the government line on fracking, by a scrawled note telling her the policy was changing as she spoke. Pausing only briefly, she added “on the other hand...” before fluently rebutting herself. MPs ended up laughing more with than at her, and the episode won her a reputation for quick-thinking—a quality that would make her Cameron’s choice to speak for “Remain” in the first televised Brexit debate.

*** This was undoubtedly her breakthrough moment. The former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who helped prep Remainers for the debate, recalls telling her to seize this opportunity because “people don’t know you, so here’s your chance.”

On the night, she began a little woodenly. But two zingers, delivered while looking sternly over her glasses at Boris Johnson, electrified the debate.

The first jibe was that the only number Johnson cared about was Number 10. But the second was more personal, reviving memories of all his sexual misdemeanours. Johnson might, she said, be “the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

Some felt it was too near the knuckle, but it settled the question of whether Rudd was simply backing “Remain” to advance her own career. At the time Johnson was viewed as a future Tory leader, while she was a relative minnow, unlikely to be forgiven for making him sound like a virtual date rapist.

Campbell certainly felt her passion over Brexit was genuine: “I really did sense that she found something profoundly unacceptable about it. I know she’s a posh Tory and all that but on a personal level, I thought there was a bit of guts there.” Nor, he says, did she need egging on to tackle Johnson: “We were meeting in this rather odd office somewhere for rehearsals and she said ‘look, I really mean this. I just hate what’s happening and I hate the ways he’s using it.’ She was really up for going for him.” Yet as he says, that only makes her prominence in a pro-Brexit government all the more jarring.

In last summer’s Tory leadership contest, Rudd backed May early and was rewarded with promotion to the Home Office. The extent to which she subsequently earned May’s trust was obvious this June, when she stood in for the no-show prime minister in the televised general election debate and was widely praised for a solid performance in difficult circumstances. Yet as Rudd seeks to put her own stamp on the department her boss used to run with an iron grip, their relationship has been increasingly tested.

Strictly speaking, the idea of naming and shaming employers of foreigners never actually appeared in Amber Rudd’s 2016 party conference speech, but in an accompanying press release. May’s then longstanding aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, were invariably blamed for over-egging it. “She has the nightmare role of running the department that Theresa May once did, that Nick and Fi knew all the intimate details of,” says a former colleague.

But that won’t quite do as an excuse. Friends say Rudd herself now accepts that, struggling to acclimatise to a very different post-referendum mood, she went too far with what one friend describes as “trying too hard to impress the new boss.”

*** Her difficulty in forging a more liberal policy, however, is that May doesn’t enjoy having her old decisions challenged—whether on digital privacy, where Rudd inherited a stand-off with tech companies over accessing encrypted communications, or immigration.

The government target to reduce immigration to the “tens of thousands” is now widely seen in cabinet as economically injurious and politically self-wounding because of the consistent failure to get anywhere near it. But ditching it just when the numbers are finally falling would be a personal admission of failure for May, who as Home Secretary was pilloried for repeatedly missing the target, and could help revive Ukip if it were seen as a sign of going soft. Even pleas to exclude foreign students from the target have been rejected.

Quietly, Rudd has begun paving the way for a rethink. This August she finally admitted that the number of foreign students overstaying their visas has been overestimated—undermining the rationale for counting them as immigrants—and ordered a review of their impact on British national life. Shortly after, even if only coincidentally, Ruth Davidson called publicly for students to be taken out of the target. In July, Rudd ordered a similar review of EU migrants’ economic impact, which is likely to provide evidence against pulling up the drawbridge. Those Tories pushing for a more open, liberal Brexit are now arguing that while voters want immigration tightened up, what matters isn’t crude numbers but reassurance that those coming in have skills Britain needs.

“I don’t think we’re stuck with ‘tens of thousands,’” says a source in the liberal “Leave” camp. “If the public thinks it’s laughable, it’s damaging your credibility by repeating it.” The on-and-off shift over summer towards a gradual transition into Brexit, rather than a clean break in 2019, could also help by allowing time for phasing in a new skills-based visa system.

And if all this sounds to worried Remainers like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, then it may be as much of a concession as the Tory right will tolerate—especially from someone who reminds them of an era they hoped they’d left behind.

Could another Remainer ever lead the Conservatives? The Cameroonian columnist Matthew D’Ancona, who argued recently in the Standard that Rudd’s time had come, says she’s the one most capable of reaching out to voters alienated by its current direction: “I don’t agree with the orthodoxy that the party has to be led by a Brexiteer, I just think it should be led by someone good.”

However Rudd has a second awkward problem, best illustrated by the fact that her old schoolfriend Emma Craigie just happens to be the sister of her potential rival Jacob Rees-Mogg. With Jeremy Corbyn surfing a tide of anti-establishment rage, many Tories worry about being seen to draw their leaders from the same vanishingly small social circle. “She does come from a very privileged background and we’ve been there once,” says one Tory MP, who admires Rudd but thinks the party must show it’s moved on from the Cameron years.

But if Corbynism runs out of steam, if Brexit is the disaster Rudd once predicted, if Theresa May finds herself having to leave in a hurry—well, then never underestimate the power of charm and steel.