Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Amber Rudd: losing dad and my ex-husband AA Gill and why I’m sorry mum didn’t live to see me become an MP

It's been a tumultuous time for the Home Secretary with the deaths of her father and her former husband, AA Gill, terror attacks and now the case of the Russian spy. Charlotte Edwardes and Joe Murphy meet the unstoppable force behind the headlines

Amber Rudd has sort of crept up on us, hasn't she? She's seeped into our consciousness as Home Secretary, barely off radio and TV, responding to atrocities, responding to questions about policing and immigration, talking about serious crime - knives, acid attacks - and calling for a "sea change" in the way we view domestic abuse.

Yet it's striking how little we know her. Over the past days she's been consumed by the case of Sergei Skripal, the Russian spy exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury with his daughter.

Last year she dealt with three terrorist incidents (Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge) - two during the election campaign.

Generally, she's out there, seemingly a rare Cabinet minister absorbed by the day job, as opposed to a dark-room plotting or scribbling secret letters to Theresa May about Brexit.

It's the television politician we encounter first at the Home Office: fresh from a Cobra meeting, hard-eyed, focused, direct; burgundy silk shirt, burgundy polished nails.

She has the brisk air of someone who would drop everything on a Saturday night to huddle with police and MI5, then deliver a crisp statement to camera.

She doesn't have long, we're told, but nothing is off-topic, no questions we can't ask - unusual for a British politician.

Rudd, now 54, was a latecomer to politics, one of the 2010 intake, looming into view first as Energy Secretary before taking the Home Office in July 2016.

Her seat is ultra-marginal Hastings (her majority was cut to 346 in 2017: "I was saved by a member of Labour who stood as an independent Marxist and got 410," she says.

She was married to The Sunday Times writer and critic AA Gill, who died in December 2016, with whom she had two children, Flora and Alasdair. From 2010 she was in a relationship with Kwasi Kwarteng (42), the Conservative MP for Spelthorne, 12 years younger, but she says today that is over. Is she currently single? "Yes".

Her passage in politics has been by no means smooth: she faltered with a damaging conference speech on immigration in October 2016 in which she said she wanted to make it harder for British firms to employ migrants and to ensure foreign workers "were not taking jobs British workers could do".

Is it fair to say she wouldn't make that speech now? "It is," she says. She takes full responsibility. "It was my speech. The whole language of immigration you have to tread so carefully on."

Eighteen months on, Rudd is a moderating voice on immigration policy. A White Paper has been put off to the end of the year, prompting questions from business about where they stand. Recent falls in net EU arrivals and the decision to grant rights to settled EU citizens have "taken away the urgency," she says. And business needs to recruit talent. "That is as critical to me as getting the numbers down."

Certainly she is more decisive. She describes the horrors of 2017 as "quite a baptism in terms of the whole area of extremism and counter-terrorism and stuff, and that makes you more confident about your area if you get through it".

Of course, following Theresa May as the longest-serving Home Secretary must have been tough, especially given May's obsessive attention to detail. Did the PM backseat-drive? "When you take on a new department, the former Secretary of State always has an interest - it's just unavoidable." She does the same to Greg Clark in energy, wanting, occasionally, "to lean in a bit and give some advice".

"It's like when you've sold a house and you meet the new owner and you say, 'Oh but you've turned the blue room red. Did you think that was a good idea?' (May) does a little bit of that."

At the same time, having a PM who knows the complications of the Home Office brief is a "great thing". She doesn't make "demands". "She's interested in saying, 'Have you thought about this?' or 'Oh I found that when I was in the Home Office'." Advice like that is "a help".

Fears within the party that Rudd is too similar to May must evaporate at close range. For instance, one can't imagine May writing poetry to promote sexual health, as Rudd did (achieving the rhyming couplet "But why dear heart, did you not mention, what we'll do for contraception?") or indeed appearing on IMDB as both "aristocracy consultant" and an extra in Four Weddings and a Funeral (while on maternity leave in 1994, she was asked by a friend to round up 20 friends for a wedding scene in "a small British film").

Fashion we broach with caution, but Rudd embraces the subject instantly. "I like clothes," she says. "I like shoes - perhaps not as much as the Prime Minister, but there we are. All these things matter a bit and are also quite fun. If I only thought about immigration, terrorism, policing…" She would be limited?

"I think about what I should wear, what would look good, what would be appropriate. Do you remember Hillary Clinton once started a lecture at Vassar to all these brilliant women saying: 'Hair matters'? They were like, 'Ooof'."

It's clear she prefers block colours to fussiness, and her hair is clean and brushed as opposed to Theresa May's grey, hairsprayed thunderclap.

Does Isabel Spearman, who advised Samantha Cameron, have a hand in her wardrobe? "A lot of girlfriends want to help," she says, reluctant to be drawn. "They send me bits of advice, little links that might help."

In background Rudd is closer to Cameron (father a stockbroker, mother a magistrate), although she doesn't seem so posh - she's neither sibilant or plummy and avoided that Oxford scene by going to Edinburgh. Her family were political, if not exactly Conservative. Her brother, Roland Rudd, founder of PR firm Finsbury, was a Labour donor and member.

Do they debate? "He wouldn't describe himself necessarily as Labour," she says, brusque, "but we're a family of activism and political conversation. International discussions while you're grabbing something out of the fridge wouldn't be unusual. Everyday engagement in public life was considered part of our family. We've passed that on to our children."

Of her parents, only her mother, Ethne, was Conservative. "My mother never saw me become a member of parliament and I miss that. I would've loved it, I must say."

She describes Ethne (a great friend of Alan Clark, the controversial Conservative MP, historian and wit), as "quite strict, quite loving with high standards. She was always someone who would say, 'if you want to do something, get up and do it'."

Her father Tony, on the other hand, was a liberal. He died last year. Two days later she stood up and did the leadership debate in place of Theresa May. Why? "It didn't occur to me not to do it," she says. "I can see, looking back now, that I must've have just been on auto-pilot. We had arranged for my father to go to my brother's to watch the debate and to have a little family do and cheer me on. They had the party without him, and I did the debate."

She didn't stop to cry, or process his death, but stresses he was 94 and unwell. "He lived a marvellous full life," she says. "He was wonderful with me. I used to have dinner or lunch with him every week. Sometimes I had to tell him again I had become Home Secretary and he was always slightly surprised." She repeats: "It didn't occur to me not to do the debate. And that's probably part of who I am. And (who) my family (is) in terms of, 'Why would you let everybody else down?'"

Rudd, one imagines, is someone who has probably always held things together - her children, Gill, when they were married. Actually Gill was still finding his feet after battling alcoholism when they met. Rudd was working at JP Morgan. She was pregnant when they married and while the kids toddled, Gill ran cooking classes and threw flamboyant parties with canapes of crispy coils of pig's tail.

Fun? "Yes, well it was quite hard work at the time. Adrian was doing the cooking, but I was doing everything else."

Did she pay for everything? "At the start, yes." But, she adds, "He was fantastically engaging, colourful and amusing but also..."' Hard work? "I had a busy time having children, getting married, getting divorced over a five or six-year period."

Gill left Rudd suddenly for model Nicola Formby, with whom he had twins, now 10. "It took a bit of time to recover," she says.

Gill called their separation "positive divorce". What did he mean? "It's one where you soon make up as friends and you realise you have two fantastic children and get on with your lives separately but wishing each other well. It took time, but we got there. That's why I felt such a loss when he died."

His sudden death from cancer was devastating. "It was terrible. Incredibly upsetting. I felt very sad for my children and for his wife and for their children."

The two women have drawn support from each other. "One of the surprising outcomes is that we occasionally all do things as a family - me with my two, Nicola and her two; for lunch or to a gallery - which is a very nice feeling.

"It comes back to family - the family unit is such a supportive way of getting through difficult situations.

"And it was very difficult: a little difficult for me, but I didn't feel it as acutely as Nicola or the children."

Her children are "pretty well" (they keep in touch by WhatsApp, the messaging service she once criticised): "You know how it is with children, there are ups and downs, but they are both in a reasonably good space at the moment, I'm happy to say."

The children were in their teens when she went into politics. She remembers her sister saying to her son, 'You must be so proud now your mother is an MP'. "He was 17 at the time - he said, 'Yes it's fantastic, she's never home'. I am still so 'never home' that he won't move out," she laughs. "He's 24."

Home Secretary would be tough as a single mother with small children, she says.

"I was thinking today on the way from Hastings it helps having children who are grown up when your weekend is taken over by your work abruptly.

"It's a difficult job with small children because the Home Office is all encompassing. Being a member of parliament is pretty full on, being a minister adds to that responsibility, but the Home Office takes over. It's not as though you can postpone decisions because they are often about operational matters."

Still, she has downtime. She jettisons her phone for a book for 30 minutes before she sleeps and goes to the theatre with friends (although sometimes has to leave suddenly).

Finally we ask about her leadership ambitions. Does she want the top job? She claims - as they all claim - that they want to get on with their jobs and not think about it. Will she outstrip May's record? She asks her adviser how long May was in the role. Six years. "Wow. Well I feel like I am only just getting into my stride as Home Secretary, so I hope I can stay."

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