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'It is very difficult to work out what is Cummings and what is Boris'

Two weeks after her resignation rocked the Cabinet, the former Home Secretary has come out fighting. Amber Rudd tells Joe Murphy and Ayesha Hazarika why the £6bn no-deal budget makes her 'blood boil' - and about her plans for the next election

Waiting in the wings: Amber Rudd
Waiting in the wings: Amber Rudd
Amber Rudd in Westminster after the Supreme Court ruling on the suspension of Parliament
Divisive figures: Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Dominic Cummings

By Joe Murphy and Ayesha Hazarika

If you want to know how petty-minded the current Tory leadership can be, step inside Amber Rudd's office. The whitewashed cube sits in an out-of-the-way corridor in the rafters of the House of Commons, walls scarred by old picture hooks from when the last occupant cleared out.

A former Home Secretary would normally be allocated something more impressive, but Rudd is on the naughty step because she had the temerity, some would say courage, to resign from Boris Johnson's government.

"I don't care," she says cheerfully. "They're slightly perplexed by how to treat me, to be honest, but I think they may be crystallising their views."

Rudd resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary, a job she loved, on September 7 in a gesture of solidarity with the 21 Conservative MPs stripped of the Tory whip for rebelling against a no-deal Brexit.

She gave no advance notice to Downing Street, which Boris Johnson grumbled about in a phone call that evening.

Rudd explains: "I said 'Do you not know the people around you?' He got that point."

What did she mean? "If they'd known earlier, they probably would have briefed nasty things against me, so here I am in my lovely office."

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By an extraordinary coincidence, it is the same room she was allocated when she first arrived at Westminster in 2010 as a mother in her 40s, having been elected in the marginal seat of Hastings and Rye.

Two weeks on from her resignation, Rudd looks relaxed, comfortable and modern in white trainers and wide-legged trousers.

Much of her good humour is down to more sleep, time to think, time with her children and a new partner who she wisely won't name but reveals isn't a political animal.

She has strong feelings about how the Prime Minister and his team are operating.

Many felt she held back on revealing her true thoughts when she quit, but today she is forthright and unequivocal about her dismay.

She was "desperately disappointed and stunned" by the lack of emotional intelligence displayed during heated scenes in the Commons chamber on Wednesday night, when Labour MP Paula Sherriff raised the murder of Jo Cox and Johnson accused her of "humbug".

"That was terrible… terrible," says Rudd. "I can't understand why someone can't engage with that genuine fear that a lot of women have."

Later that night, she was heckled by a group of yobs on a Tube platform, who chanted 'We voted Leave, can you hear us Amber?', behaviour she found "menacing". Like many MPs she has had death threats.

"I think there is a danger of having high-octane politics where you have exclusively men around you who encourage that defensive, belligerent, double-down approach. I think that's what it sunk to. And the casual approach to safety of MPs and their staff is immoral," Rudd says.

As a former Home Secretary, would she agree the rhetoric of pitting people against Parliament incites violence? "The sort of language we've seen more and more of coming out from Number 10 does incite violence," she replies.

"It's the sort of language people think legitimises a more aggressive approach and sometimes violence."

She also hears echoes of Donald Trump: "I have been resisting saying this for a while, but the whole approach that we saw that night of vilifying your opponents in this way, this terrible language of betrayal, surrender... it is reminiscent of 'Lock her up' and the whole thing of Trump saying 'make America great again' and Boris saying 'We leave on October 31'

She thinks Johnson has instilled a belief that "all my needs will justify the ends, which I think is immoral". Senior ministers, she says, "should consider their own judgments rather than be desperately loyal".

As well as resigning from the Cabinet, Rudd voluntarily resigned the Tory whip. Did she leave her party, or did it leave her? "Absolutely the party left me," she replies. "I was very proud to be part of David Cameron's government. I thought that the reforms that he did were important and needed, but this party has completely gone the other way. It seems to have abandoned the whole approach of consensus.

"I worry that there's now a majority of people who opposed equal marriage in Cabinet.

"The whole modernisation approach is going to struggle if the people he (Johnson) surrounds himself with are people who did not support it."

When did she notice the tide turn on progressive Conservatism? "I think that we were all in denial for a long time. Brexit has just been the catalyst for the sort of change that people have seen slowly creeping up on them."

As she describes her relationship with Johnson, a narrative emerges of hope turning to dismay and alarm.

Although she bested him in a 2016 referendum debate with the zinger he was "not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening", she considered backing him for leader.

"I concluded that I couldn't because I was concerned about the risky way he was approaching leaving the European Union," she explains.

Rudd ended their talks by telling Johnson that the economy was like a priceless Ming vase "and I'm worried that you're just too casual with it and you're going to drop it".

Despite her candour, she survived the reshuffle. Offered her old job, she told Johnson she was "jealous of every pound spent on no-deal planning" that could be invested in welfare. "I think he gave me a slightly beady look, wondering whether I might be trouble after all," she says.

It took only "a couple of weeks for the penny to drop" that the government was working hard on no-deal planning. Then came the decision to prorogue parliament. She found out in a phone call from former Justice Secretary David Gauke. "Stunned" is how she describes her reaction. "I called two Cabinet ministers and said 'Do you know anything about this?'. They said 'No'.

She repeatedly pressed to see the legal advice on the decision. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said that he preferred to give the Prime Minister verbal advice but would let her see what had been written down. "I think he genuinely wanted to send it to me, but I am told that Number 10, Dominic Cummings, stopped it coming to me."

A day before she resigned, she was told she would be shown "a partial amount of it". By then, Rudd felt deeply conflicted.

"What I was reaching for is 'Is this Cabinet government or not?' By not engaging with the request from a minister to seek legal advice on something as important as prorogation, it felt to me like an authoritarian government."

What did she make of Cummings' influence? "It is very difficult to work out what is Cummings and what is Boris." Should he be fired? Rudd thinks that Johnson cannot let go because "he is so welded to him and the whole strategy".

What next? She retains a passion for work and pensions policy and wants more money pumped into universal credit and local training schemes to help people like the Yardley Ladies Project that she discussed with Labour MP Jess Phillips.

"The fact that we're spending up to £6bn on no-deal planning makes my blood boil," Rudd says.

She has also embarked on a "long journey" to assess whether proportional representation could heal British politics. Perhaps, she speculates, a system that enabled 20 or 30 Brexit Party MPs "might release the steam on the pressure cooker".

She points out: "We used to laugh at Italy with their PR and their frequent governments, but now we have become that."

Most intriguing is what she will do at the next general election. Rudd will not stand in Hastings, as it would divide old friends, but the lifelong Londoner reveals she is looking at seats in the city. "The most likely place for me to stand, if I need to stand as an independent Conservative, would be somewhere with a strong Remain constituency, so I am looking around."

She refuses to say where but does not deny that Kensington, where left-wing Labour MP Emma Dent Coad achieved a majority of just 20 against a Boris-backing Brexiteer in 2017, is a possibility.

Rudd is at home in the capital. "It's a wonderful city, I love it. I love the way that you can do so much... the galleries, theatres, the art galleries, walking around - it's a fantastic city."

She recently saw Henry IV at Shakespeare's Globe, which was "fantastic" and had "a lot of similarities" with current events. She saw the Downton Abbey movie but found it "a bit dull".

Rudd has no doubt that Johnson will use a loophole, if he can find one, in the Benn Act to revive his threat to leave the European Union by October 31 with or without a deal. Did she trust the Prime Minister? Rudd pauses: "I think I'm going to have to pass on that question."

She doubts that a government of national unity will happen but if it did thinks Ken Clarke, "a marvellous man", and Margaret Beckett, "also marvellous", would be capable of leading it. For Speaker, she wants a "tough" woman and is going to chat with both Tory MP Eleanor Laing and Labour's Harriet Harman.

She believes the election will come in spring. By then this determined and principled woman will have picked a battleground to fight, possibly against her old party as an independent Conservative.

"All I can say is that at the moment I don't want to leave the pitch," she says. "A lot of people have walked away from their party, but I think you have got to stay and fight."

© EVENING STANDARD

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