When Toby met Amber
Amber Rudd has been MP for Hastings and Rye since 2010. Securing the seat with a relatively slender majority. Five years later and she doubled her majority and embarked on a stellar rise through the government ranks. But although her rise has been spectacular, it has not been without incident. Her party conference speech this month was likened by some to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. She agreed to be interviewed by Toby Sargent for the latest of our People of Hastings series.
I’d only met Amber Rudd once before. It was 18 April 2011, and she was at the forefront of a demonstration in Trafalgar Square protesting at plans to scrap the May Day bank holiday. Surrounded by more than 100 people, including Morris dancers and fully costumed Jack-in-the-Green revellers – including May Queens and hobby horses – she handed in a petition to the Minister for Tourism, an amiable chap called John Penrose, whose plan it was to scrap the public holiday in favour of one later in the year.
Canny eye for a photo-opportunity
I was Mr Penrose’s government press secretary at the time, and was struck by Ms Rudd’s enthusiasm and canny eye for an effective photo-opportunity. Later that year the policy was quietly dropped.
Things are different these days though. Amber Rudd’s constituency office is still located on a grim industrial estate behind ASDA but now her presence is marked by an enormous and immaculately polished black BMW outside and the attentions of two thick-set young men in wax jackets with earpieces and walkie-talkies, preventing any unexpected or unwelcome visitors getting in. And this is not simply a sensible precaution in the post Jo Cox political environment, this is how it has been for those holding the Home Office brief for decades now.
Real VIPs don’t go in for the 23-stone sweaty gorillas that showbiz types favour; if you want real protection that isn’t just for show, the Special Branch provide understated muscle, meticulous planning and unwavering strategies for every occasion.
Scratching of heads and mumbled conversations
But things get off to an uncomfortable start. I’m on the list, but where is my driving licence or passport? Back at home, of course, because no one told me I’d need them. Reluctantly, and after much scratching of heads and mumbled conversations on the radios, my over-60s bus pass is deemed to be acceptable and I’m ushered upstairs to meet the MP.
Now the agreement I made in order to secure my 15 minutes with Ms Rudd was that I wouldn’t ask about her Home Office brief (better dealt with by ‘real’ journalists, I reckon – not weary old yours truly); nor would I interrogate her on her tax affairs before taking office (as above, but also – let’s face it – none of my business). Pretty soft stuff when all’s said and done. There seemed little point in pressing her for an outspoken view on the Southern Rail dispute or any particular planning issue; as a senior member of the Cabinet, she’s required to defer to ministerial colleagues on that sort of thing.
Pretty ripe things about Hastings
Instead it would be a chat about her thoughts on being MP for us, what she thought of the town and its prospects, and what she hoped to achieve now that she had so many other responsibilities.
And I used a 2013 interview she gave to Elizabeth Rigby of the FT, in which she said some pretty ripe things about Hastings as a starting point. I rather hoped she would use the virtual pages of HOT to set the record straight. So I switch on the tape recorder, and off we go.
No idea what I’m doing here
Ominously, it becomes clear as I do so that she has no idea what I’m doing here and I have to explain what HOT is and what I’m hoping to get out out of our (rapidly shrinking) 15 minutes.
TS: One of the references I’ve used, inevitably, has been the piece by Liz Rigby in the Financial Times when she described you as a “jack-of-all-trades single mother who wanted to be something else.” Now that doesn’t sound quite right to me. You had an extremely successful career beforehand. But is that how you saw yourself before you became an MP?
AR: Well, I’ve always been interested in politics and I felt it was the right time for me to try to become one.
“Could you switch that thing off?”
TS: Ok, well another quote from that piece is that you wanted to have a constituency that was two hours from London . . .
AR: Do you know, I’m so sorry but I’m not really very comfortable with this. Could you switch that thing off?
So I do. And she explains to me that the FT interview was damaging to her at the time and that she’s not prepared to talk about it. The trouble is, she says, that her words to me in this piddling little piece (my words, not hers, of course) might get picked up by others who could use them against her. I skim through my proposed question headings with her and discover that most of what I had wanted to ask is off limits. Would she not like to put the record straight? No.
Awkward and embarrassing
This is awkward and embarrassing for us both. And none of it is her fault. Or mine. She should have been properly briefed in advance about what she had signed up for, and someone in the political office – one of those super-talented yet weirdly youthful Special Advisers we hear so much about, perhaps – should have gripped it. She’s the Home Secretary, one of the big four government offices, for pity’s sake, not a Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and flippin’ Sport.
But we are where we are, and roughly two thirds of what I’d hoped to chew over with her is now out of bounds. So it’s back on with the tape machine and we plod ahead across the dry plateaux of safe answers and lines-to-take.
TS: Hastings has had a bleak sort of reputation in the past – what do you make of its prospects now?
AR: I’m proud of the way Hastings is regenerating, and there are examples of significant investment taking place which I think is good for us all. One that I would highlight most, I think, would be the pier, where people are coming from outside and around Hastings to enjoy it. And it’s absolutely great.
Less recently, put equally enjoyably, there’s the Jerwood. And both of those are, I think, sort of beacons of investment for the town and demonstrate – are visual demonstrations of – the regeneration of the area.
TS: The town is sometimes characterised as a sort of ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea,’ a trendy place which is drawing creative people down from London – is that a helpful image for Hastings?
AR: We do have strong creative industries and I welcome the way it attracts artistic types to the area. They like having other people around who are part of the artistic community and it builds on the town’s appeal and theme of having a strong cultural future as well as a past.
TS: An older industry, of course, is fishing. And it was that community, it’s said, that had a lot to do with the town voting strongly for Brexit. You were vociferously a ‘remainer’, so is your position here now more difficult because of that?
AR: I’ve always got on really well with our fishing community, and have always been a long-standing campaigner for them. I’m absolutely committed to making sure we increase the amount of quota that they get. There was some progress under the last government but we need to do much, much more. So I’m hopeful that one of the benefits of leaving the EU may be better access to more quotas. In fact I had a meeting just last week with the senior fishermen from the Hastings fleet to discuss how to go about that.
TS: Should constituents be pleased that you’re Home Secretary? Will you be able to look after the town’s interests with so much else to be responsible for?
AR: Yes I will. I’ am still here on Fridays and Saturdays as I always have been, and it’s fairly busy. I am determined to continue to be a good constituency MP as well as, I hope, a good Home Secretary.
TS: What about all the security that goes with the job? Does it make things difficult?
AS: No it doesn’t actually. I haven’t really noticed any change. They’re there to help. They’re protecting the Home Secretary – they’re not protecting Amber Rudd. It goes with the job – I find it fairly straightforward.
Pretty dull stuff, you see? And nothing very much so far that anyone could ever use against her, so that’s good news in her terms I suppose. Perhaps I’ll get something a bit less obvious – fresher might be a better word – if I explore her interests outside the job.
TS: What do you do to relax? What do you enjoy doing?
AR: I find it very relaxing to be down in Hastings and Rye: going to local events, going to flower shows. Like this morning we were up in the castle; I went up in the West Hill lift with the Mayor and other councillors for the opening ceremony of the 950th anniversary week of celebrations. I find all that very calming because I’m surrounded by people I know and good friends, so I relax by doing everyday things in Hastings.
So there you have it. Dull answers which, you might well say, were entirely appropriate to the dull questions I was left with to ask. But the political weather has been stormy since the 2015 election and I guess that Ms Rudd has calculated that being a safe pair of hands is as good a strategy as any at this point. And who can argue with that? But it’s the showy politicians that people remember, and they’re the same ones that very often fly higher – and further – than can be explained by their natural talents and skills alone.
The right time
So I wish she had taken a bit more of a chance with me. To say that you decided to leave a successful business career to become the elected representative of one of the most socially deprived areas in the country because you had “always been interested in politics and I felt it was the right time . . to try to become (an MP)” seems a bit feeble really.
And the reported claim that she wanted to represent Hastings because it was no more than two hours from London really ought to be rebutted. And all the more so when offered the chance to do so by a local community news platform. Perhaps she’ll have a change of heart and offer a comment in the space below. Perhaps not.
Rudd for PM?
Just before we parted company, by the way, I asked the stock question that every politician needs to have an answer for up their sleeve: do you hope one day to be Prime Minister? “No I don’t,” she replied with practised crispness “I have ambitions to be a very successful Home Secretary.”
I hope she fulfils that ambition. I also hope that – one day – she finds more exciting ways to relax than travelling in a lift with “the Mayor and other councillors.”
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