The EU referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Did you think that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union had become inevitable?
Amber Rudd (AR): In 2015, when David Cameron decided to go that way, I wasn’t really involved. I hadn’t really thought much, when I entered politics, about the relationship of the UK with the EU. It looked settled to me. The way it accelerated into a referendum felt terribly fast to me. As I say, I hadn’t really given it much thought.
When it began to emerge, I realised that I needed to take a side, and for me, it was very simple. I was going to be in favour of the UK leading in the EU. But I can see now, with hindsight, that there were signs that the pace of the issue was accelerating. The example I give is that I was selected, in Hastings, to stand as a candidate in 2006, and I was up against a very popular Labour MP called Michael Foster. Not the foxhunting one; the other Michael Foster. But he was a very nice, agreeable man, who had done well in Hastings, with high levels of recognition.
He had a 2,000 majority, so it wasn’t obvious I was going to win in 2010. So I was desperate to form campaigns that would get attention. People are pretty indifferent to campaigns, unless they’re very local, about hospitals or schools, or whatever.
I had one on the Lisbon referendum. If you remember there was this campaign in which David Cameron said, ‘Give us a referendum on the Lisbon Agreement’. He said that if we got into office in 2010, and the Lisbon Agreement hadn’t been ratified, then there would be a referendum. So, I thought, ‘Well, it sounds reasonable. Give us a referendum’.
I held an event in a local hotel, in Hastings, to say, ‘Give us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty’ as part of a Conservative campaign. I was swamped. I’d never seen so many people turn up. Save the hospital, four people; save the local school, three, but give us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, it was standing room only. That should’ve been an indication to me of the scale of it. But at that point, I wasn’t really concentrating. I was concentrating on getting the attention of people and winning, which we did in 2010.
So no, I don’t think it was inevitable, perhaps only because I wasn’t concentrating on what was going on in the Conservative Party. I do think that the political imperative for this came from the Conservative Party. We have to own that fact, although obviously, as we saw, the support for it was much wider than that.
UKICE: Were you surprised at the extent of support in the party, both among your colleagues in Parliament, but also in the party in the country, for Leave?
AR: Colleagues in Parliament were more cautious about it, I felt, under David Cameron particularly. Nobody was really pushing for a referendum at that stage. That was Nigel Farage. That was UKIP. Even the people who led the Vote Leave campaign, at that stage – Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith – they weren’t saying, ‘Give us a referendum’. They were critical of the EU, but it was not a Conservative position.
Because of David Cameron and George Osborne’s leadership, it didn’t feel like it was a live issue. It felt like it was something on the edge of the party for people who weren’t really involved in government.
I knew that my membership was more interested in it, but as long as the MPs didn’t really campaign for it or try to secure it, again, it looked like it was just a minority issue.
UKICE: As the referendum itself approached, were you surprised by how many of your colleagues backed Leave?
AR: I was surprised by the political calculations that a lot of my colleagues were making. It was quite difficult to have a proper conversation with a lot of Conservative MPs in Parliament about how they felt about it. A lot of them backed Leave because their membership backed it. A lot of them were trying to calculate who would win. The reason why a lot of people decided not to participate in the Remain campaign was that they calculated that it would be simpler not to.
I sound very critical of that, but I don’t feel wholly critical of that. It’s just that it’s not everybody’s thing. People have different priorities in life, and they campaign on different issues. A lot of people in the Conservative Party just didn’t feel very strongly about it.
UKICE: Did this impinge on day-to-day business as a minister? Andrea Leadsom obviously became a leading figure in the Leave campaign. Did that get in the way of the business of government?
AR: It didn’t, really, no. We worked well together in the Energy Department. I remember, just as we were getting close to sitting down with her and saying, ‘Are you sure?’, that I still thought, at that point, that it was an offshoot of the Conservative Party, and that it was a sort of indulgence. I didn’t realise the scale of support they were going to generate. I thought she’d be doing herself some damage, actually. So I sat her down and said, ‘Are you sure?’. She said, ‘Yes, I think we can win’. ‘Really?’.
Looking back, I’m critical of my own lack of critical approach to it. But it didn’t get in the way of the Government, no. We carried on working well together, but that’s because we had a good relationship, and we still do.
UKICE: You took part in one of the big debates. Can you just talk us through what you did in the way of preparation for that? Did you work closely with Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Eagle in the run-up to it?
AR: We had a sort of away-day event at a building near Parliament. There was an away-day there, with Alastair Campbell, Craig Oliver, and there were a few people from David Cameron’s team to help us game things, as well as Angela Eagle, and a stand-in for Nicola Sturgeon.
She wouldn’t actually come, until she turned up at the event at the last minute, which was pretty irritating. Not that it made any difference, really. We all were well prepared. They were slightly worried about Angela Eagle, who didn’t take to it, initially, in the rehearsals. They would fire us questions at a sort of makeshift podium, and we would do our best to respond. Somebody would mock up being Boris (Johnson), and we tried to practice our lines. I think we did all we could.
Alastair Campbell was slightly alarming, but he always is. I think we did all the preparation we could, although Nicola, as I say, didn’t really engage with the preparation. But I think the actual event was fine. Obviously, I had prepared some lines, which I didn’t share with the group there, but I hoped to deliver, and did.
UKICE: You came out with one of the most memorable lines of the campaign about not wanting Boris Johnson to drive you home. Do you think, in general, the Remain side should’ve attacked other Conservatives a bit harder than they did? Given the willingness of the Leave side to indulge in no-holds-barred, blue-on-blue attacks, do you think the then-Prime Minister was making a mistake by not doing the same?
AR: I didn’t think it at the time, because I wouldn’t have wanted to do it differently. I think there were huge problems with the campaign that we can see with hindsight, and I thought that they were lying about the £350m. What are you going to do? It’s a difficult one to counter, and we didn’t successfully counter it, and it was a smart move. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be part of a campaign where I didn’t think things were true.
I think the lack of a real Labour leadership in the campaign was extraordinary. I was alarmed when Jeremy Corbyn was away for the campaign, I think, for about a week of it. Robert Tombs, in his book, says that it was inevitable that the UK was going to leave the EU, and the surprise is that it was by such a small majority. I just don’t agree with that at all. I think it was closer than everybody thought.
But I think if we’d had a different Labour leader – for God’s sake, it wouldn’t have happened with Tony Blair, Ed Miliband, probably Keir Starmer. If only Labour had lifted their finger, rather than looking indifferent to it. I don’t want to try to blame them here, I’m just saying it wasn’t inevitable. I think the fact that it looked like a Conservative versus Conservative contest was disastrous for us, because I think a lot of the public just thought we were saying, ‘Do you like David Cameron?’ and there were plenty of people, it turned out, who didn’t. So I think that was part of the problem.
I didn’t really engage a huge amount with the strategy of the campaign. I wasn’t invited. I didn’t turn up. I felt I was a foot soldier, ready to be deployed. I enjoy debating. I could get out there and try to make the case, and so I was very happy to do that, and to go on the news and do things. I don’t regret this. You can only do so many things in life, but I wasn’t in the general’s camp, trying to work out what to do.
UKICE: One of the things that was striking about that debate was the message discipline on the Leave side, with the three of them repeating the ‘take back control’ message. Were you struck by that ability on the Leave side?
AR: Yes. It felt absurd to me. They weren’t engaging with the questions we were putting. They were just saying, ‘Take back control’, again and again. But obviously, it really worked, and it is a phrase that people still talk about, in every different context. It was slightly wrong-footing, because it made it difficult to have a conversation with them, but they were extraordinary at it.
I think that they’d also tamed Boris, because you could see him, sometimes, wanting to get out there and fight, and him going, ‘Over to you, Andrea’, which wasn’t his natural positioning. But again, he had very good discipline on it.
In the break, we had something like one minute and thirty seconds, and it was quite a long debate. So we all bolted for the loo. I got some criticism, afterwards, from various people, particularly Conservatives, for going after Boris too hard. Boris just yelled at me, ‘Ready to surrender yet, Amber?’ He is who he is; he’s not going to take offence by you having a pop at him.
UKICE: On 24 June, when you woke up, what did you think would happen? What did you think UK-EU relations would look like? Where was Brexit going to take us?
AR: I find it extraordinary that anybody who cared about the referendum was able to sleep at all that night. How do you fall asleep when it’s all on such a knife edge, on both sides? The idea of Michael Gove being woken up to be told the result is just extraordinary.
I was live on air when Sunderland came in, and I was in the studio, following IDS (Iain Duncan-Smith), with Douglas Carswell next to me. He looked at me and he said, ‘We’re leaving’. That was the first time I really realised.
So what did I think was going to happen? It came as no surprise to me that David Cameron resigned. I don’t see how he could have possibly carried on. He’d staked so much on that.
First of all, very frankly, I thought my political career was over. I’d backed the losing side. I’d staked all I could. I’d challenged the character of some of the leaders. So I was pretty unhappy about it, but I’d fought the good fight, and I thought that was it.
I started thinking about my next career, out of politics. I thought that was it. So the way things panned out over the next few weeks was absolutely extraordinary. The bit of resentment I have, I suppose, even though I’m still on good terms with both Michael (Gove) and Boris, is that the arguments between the two of them led to a Prime Minister who neither of them would ultimately support. Well, Michael tried to support her. But a Prime Minister who couldn’t deliver the Vote Leave vision. So we had to wait until they made up for Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister.
Home Secretary, July 2016 – April 2018
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Did you think, at that stage, after the UK had voted to leave, that we really needed a Leaver as Prime Minister?
Amber Rudd (AR): Yes, I did. I thought, ‘To the winners, the spoils’, really. They’d won. They were passionate about it. They could make a positive outcome out of it. I didn’t think I could. Clearly, if you put all your eggs into one campaign, if you win, that’s great, but if not, you don’t really have a place. That’s what I thought at the time. That’s why Boris would have won that leadership election, if Michael hadn’t gone for him.
UKICE: Did you have reservations about the Cabinet that Theresa May constructed when she came in, making you Home Secretary, Philip Hammond Chancellor, Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, and giving David Davis the Brexit Department and Liam Fox International Trade? Did you think, ‘This doesn’t feel a Leave-y enough government’ or did the Prime Minister give you any indication of where she was going to take Brexit when she appointed you to the Home Office?
AR: First of all, the party was distraught by the Michael Gove-Boris Johnson mutual destruction. It moved, immediately, really to Theresa May, with Andrea coming in second. But really, at that point, it was going to be Theresa May. Partly because the events between the two of them had been so extraordinary and surprising; it was like holding onto nurse’s hand. There were people who wanted to be with Theresa May. It looked secure.
I don’t recall thinking at the time that this was going to be about Brexit. I thought that the Brexit debate had been lost, for people like me, and we were leaving the EU. I had no idea how we were going to do that. It wasn’t my problem. My problem was now being Home Secretary, which was a huge surprise to me. When I spoke to Theresa (May) about it – and of course, she was famous for having been a successful Home Secretary over six years – we went through what it means to be Home Secretary.
I did not expect to play much of a role in the Brexit negotiations that she was going to manage, and she’d got a balanced Cabinet.
UKICE: Beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’, she didn’t mention to you what her vision was?
AR: No. Theresa is famously a very private person, and it’s very difficult to get her to open up about what the real plan is, and I never succeeded. I did ask. But there was an element, too, of the fact that she had – and I think this is confirmed, with hindsight – what looked like an impossible task.
UKICE: If we fast forward to the Tory Party conference of that October, she made a speech on the Sunday, in which she laid out the bare bones of her vision, which was quite a hard-sounding Brexit. Did you know about that in advance?
UKICE: What did you think when you heard it?
AR: The truth is, I didn’t really feel that the rest of us had any influence on what sort of Brexit she was going to do. She didn’t consult with the rest of us. The way Theresa ran government was that she engaged with us over decisions that weren’t to do with Brexit, but on Brexit itself, there was this extraordinary Brexit sub-committee, where on the one side, you’d have me, Philip (Hammond), Greg Clark, Damian (Green), when he was there for a bit, and on the other side, Liam (Fox), David (Davis) and Boris scowling at Theresa.
Looking back on it, I think that it was an impossible situation, because we each pulled on the piece of string. So one would pull one side, and the string would move, and the other would be on the other side, and the string would be pulled there. Theresa would just say, ‘Well, that’s interesting’, and then close the book, and none of us would be any the wiser.
I’d just been made Home Secretary, and it’s an enormous job, as I found out, and it just got bigger and bigger all the time. So really, even though I held my own, in terms of trying to push for a soft Brexit – I basically tucked in behind Philip Hammond to try to see if we could achieve that – my hands were full with the job.
UKICE: Your speech at the 2016 conference was, some people thought, quite surprising with its emphasis on British jobs-
AR: It wasn’t an emphasis. It was a mistake, basically. I hadn’t seen what it would be interpreted as. I thought it looked like a good way to get more training to businesses that were having to recruit from overseas. It turned out to be something else entirely, and there were cartoons of me with sort of Jewish and Nazi connotations. It was very uncomfortable, and it was not a mistake I ever made again. So there it was.
UKICE: Did the emphasis on that come from Number 10, or was it between you and your advisors?
AR: No. I think that there was always an element, with my advisers, of, ‘Amber is not as tough on some of these things as she needs to be, so we need to show that she is’. But again, I don’t think I should blame anybody else for that. Basically, I should have spotted it. It isn’t what I intended, so it was irritating.
UKICE: In that period after that, you have two big things that you have to do as a consequence of Brexit as Home Secretary. One is to develop the post-Brexit UK migration regime to end freedom of movement. But there was also the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations and citizens’ rights.
There was some pressure, not least from some Leave supporters, to make a unilateral offer on EU citizens in the UK, to show that we respected their right to remain. Were there discussions on making that?
AR: Almost none. The plan for the EU citizens, I thought, was evolved, and we put in place the settled status regime, and it’s working quite well, as far as I can see. I don’t recall anybody coming to see me, asking for that.
On freedom of movement, I devised, with the help of the Home Office, a grading system, where we could have a different system of immigration from the EU than we had with the rest of the world, and where we would have a system whereby we could have that as part of the negotiations, to get better access to a free trade agreement. I still think that was an opportunity lost.
There was a kind of delusional approach from some people in Cabinet. The trouble with the transition period, they thought, was that there would be a rush of people from the EU coming to join the UK, in order to avoid being shut out when the transition period ended, so we had to move more quickly. That never happened.
UKICE: If we approach the general election, you featured in yet another debate during the campaign. You replaced the Prime Minister. On the campaign in particular, were you surprised how little Brexit came to figure, given the emphasis of the Prime Minister at its start?
AR: No. I think I was surprised, really, that Brexit was still such a divisive factor in Parliament, and as it turned out, after the election. So I had hoped, I think, like most people, that once the vote happened, Brexit was done, and that Theresa May was now going to put forward a proposal. What I found difficult, and what turned out to be very difficult and ultimately led to the Prime Minister having to resign, was that so many Conservative MPs wouldn’t support her.
But after that election, they- the ERG- still wanted Theresa to be in place. Even though she still had a tiny majority, they still thought that she was going to deliver their Brexit. I think part of the issue for Theresa May is that she was reassuring to everybody, and ultimately, everybody was disappointed.
UKICE: Did you expect any change of tactics after she lost her majority? I wonder whether you had any reservations, not least because of the sensitivity of Northern Ireland on some security issues, about doing that explicit deal with the Democratic Unionists, or was that the only place to go?
AR: I think it was the only place to go. It turned out that she was right. It was the only place to go, short of having another election, which nobody wanted. That’s when I got my 346 majority, wasn’t it, I think?
AR: It was quite an uncomfortable place to be, and it’s slightly distracting, too. You think, at one point, you’re going to lose your seat, and the next moment, you get through, just. Then you’re also reappointed as Home Secretary. It’s a difficult time to get perspective back on what else is going on.
UKICE: When you went back to the Home Office, post-election, how much direct involvement did you have in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations around citizens’ rights?
AR: Well, we prepared all the documentation to do with it. But very little. I think I made a sort of calculation. I had a few conversations with Theresa May about immigration. I remember one about trying to increase the amount of doctors that we were having over here, and sensible things like that. She didn’t brook any changes to what she considered her immigration system, so I concentrated on what I could change and do things about.
UKICE: There has been a focus on the preparations for a no deal Brexit, very much looking at the economic relations side and the potential need to manage that. Did you, at that stage, start thinking about what a no deal Brexit might mean for security, if we ended police and justice co-operation with the EU?
UKICE: Oh, yes, all the time. I couldn’t bear this idea that it was, somehow, held up as a condition. I remember saying to my German opposite number, when we sat down and had a discussion when he came to London, that we thought we should have full integration on justice and security when we left the EU. ‘We can negotiate about cod’, I said to him, ‘But we can’t negotiate about people’s lives’.
I thought that that was the right thing for us to do, not just for the EU, but for us as well. Everyone would say the UK has a sort of net advantage in security, and to a certain extent we do, but we’re not on our own. So I was always pushing for a full security agreement, and so was Theresa. On that, Theresa May and I were completely aligned. We had this vision of a series of treaties that would plug into the UK, like a kind of wheel and spoke, in order to replicate the existing agreements that we have in place, and that became less important to Boris.
UKICE: So the line that the Prime Minister outlined at Munich, in her speech in February 2018, about deep security cooperation, you were-
AR: Completely aligned with, yes. We’re all conditioned, aren’t we, by our experience in our previous jobs? So she was very clear that we should continue to have that. It was also going to continue to build on the UK’s relevance to the EU, if we had that to participate in. Also, it remains the case that the highest level of terrorism in Europe is on the Northern Ireland border. So that also explains why she was so careful about the Northern Ireland border.
She and I obviously saw much more of what was going on in that area than most people, but it does inform our determination to try to make sure that the security arrangements stayed in place.
UKICE: If the EU had said that deep security cooperation you were envisaging would involve recognition of the ECHR and ECJ jurisdiction, was that something that the Cabinet would have been very split about? Or would that have been something where the Cabinet was unified behind you and the Prime Minister?
AR: I think it would have been divisive. But I think that Theresa very much led in the security area, so I think it would’ve been okay, because nobody would have said, ‘These European regulations are getting in the way of us protecting people’. I think it’s less controversial.
UKICE: Did you get the sense that there was an appetite for that from the EU side? Would they have actually been in favour of a deep level of security cooperation with the UK?
AR: I did get that impression. I spoke a little bit to the EU, but not much. In my conversations with the French and the Germans and the Italians, they, like me, took the view that what we were doing, in terms of trying to protect our countries from terrorist events, was all about sharing information.
There was a period at the start of 2017 where I was on the phone to a German or a French counterpart, or they were on the phone to me, and I would say, every month or every two or three weeks, ‘I’m so sorry about the knifing in your train’, or, ‘I’m so sorry about the bombing in your city’. In 2017, there were terrorist incidents all over Europe. Nobody was going to step back from sharing information because of the difficulties with the EU. It didn’t feel like that to me.
Rejoining the May Government
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): You then spend six months on the backbenches, after your resignation. That’s the period when the People’s Vote campaign started to begin to gather a bit of momentum. What did you make of that? Did you think that was a helpful development?
Amber Rudd (AR): I felt the log jam in Parliament was one of our making. So the whole idea that Parliament was trying to stop Brexit was one that I found quite frustrating, because it clearly wasn’t true. What was stopping Brexit was the ERG failing to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, and Labour not engaging with it at all. So I was sort of curious about the People’s Vote, but I never came out in support of it.
Rory Stewart was the one who was clearest of all. Like me, he felt that leaving the EU was a mistake, but his view was that we had to do it as carefully and as gently as possible, and that a People’s Vote was a complete mistake. I think he was right.
UKICE: By the time you re-joined the Cabinet, Mrs May’s deal was in deep trouble. Dominic Raab and Esther McVey resigned. As you re-joined the Cabinet, did you have any expectations about what was going to happen?
UKICE: What was your thinking? ‘We just get on with it and do our best’?
AR: Well, I was grateful to Theresa May for inviting me back into Cabinet, because I’d, personally, had a difficult time. It always feels very indulgent to say that when, actually, what happened was a terrible amount of damage and hurt to people of the Windrush generation. But the fact that there had been an inquiry which said that I’d been misled and had done my best, and then she brought me back – I was grateful for that.
It felt like a moment when I was able to go back and try to do what I wanted to do, which was some reforming activity of the department I was put in.
The other thing that I had discovered, which probably sounds very obvious to you, but is quite different when you experience it, is that your voice is completely different when you’re in Cabinet than when you’re not. If you’re actually in Cabinet, you can really feel that you might have a chance of shaping something. So, I thought that if I got back into Cabinet, I’d be able to help try and make sure that the Brexit we got was going to be one that tried to support jobs and the economy, which was what I was always mostly concerned about.
UKICE: You said, earlier on, that Theresa May kept the Brexit discussions very close. Did that change as she did her deal with the EU, and then needed to try to get it through Parliament? She ended up with a long period of putting it to votes and failing and going back to the EU; was that a subject that there was a lot of Cabinet discussion?
AR: Yes, there was a lot of Cabinet discussion on it. Then there were all those alternatives: the smörgåsbord, as we said, of indicative votes and various alternatives, trying to find out what Parliament would support. As she said, ‘Parliament knows what it doesn’t want. It doesn’t know what it does want’. So I was very keen to try to find a compromise, basically.
By that point, because the ERG went for her at the end of 2018, they just wanted her out. I can see now that they were frustrating everything, really. I think Jeremy Corbyn wanted to do a deal, but I don’t think that Keir Starmer would allow him to do one. I think that they were sort of pretending. I wasn’t at those meetings, but the meetings with the Labour Party never resulted in anything concrete.
UKICE: You were becoming increasingly high profile, emerging as one of three ministers, along with Greg Clark and David Gauke, who were sticking your heads above the parapet, with an article in The Mail on Sunday about extension rather than no deal. Did you actually think the Prime Minister might be heading for no deal, or that there was a big risk of no deal by accident?
AR: Yes, I thought there was definitely a risk of no deal by accident. We were also aware that a lot of the ERG members were going in to see her a lot and making demands. The senior soft Brexiteers, rather than Remainers, as I like to call us, were concerned that she had something on the other side, which was making an impression as well. I think that’s why we became slightly more militant. Again, it’s the piece of string being pulled each side
The fight then was basically soft Brexit or hard Brexit. I think the thing on Cabinet collective responsibility did test her and Julian (Smith), the Chief Whip. But we felt that we had to stop being pushed around on it.
The night of that vote, when we abstained, there was a Cabinet meeting in the parliamentary office of the Prime Minister. I arrived late for it, as, I think, did Greg Clark, because there’d been something else we’d had to go to. We asked the question, ‘What is the Government position going to be?’ as the bell went. I think they must have known what they were doing. They were deliberately vague about it to stop a confrontation. So, we all decided to abstain, and then we sat back and waited to see what would happen.
UKICE: Did you expect to be called up by Julian Smith, or to be called up by the Prime Minister, and told you were out?
AR: Entirely possible. I was supposed to be doing a speech that night, for Seema Kennedy’s constituency, and I cancelled myself. She could see why. The next morning, we spoke to each other, David Gauke, myself and Greg Clark, and the others as well. David Gauke said he’d had a call from Julian, asking him to go and see him. I said, ‘Don’t agree to anything. Whatever he asks you to do, just come back to us’.
The Chief Whip, probably promoted by the Prime Minister, had decided to pick off David Gauke. So, David came back and said, ‘Yes, he’s asked me to resign’. I said, ‘That can’t be right, because why would you just ask one of them?’. We called up Philip (Hammond), and he decided to try to find out what was going on. He said, ‘That can’t be right. I’ve seen her this morning, and she said there aren’t going to be any resignations’. Then he called back, a few minutes later, and said, ‘Yes, that’s right’.
I called a meeting of the rest of us – I think there were 17 of us or something – at Anne Milton’s office. It was a good moment. I said, ‘We’re like the three musketeers here. We’re all or none’. So, we agreed that David would call the Chief Whip and say he’s very happy to resign, and say that there will be 12 others. He did so, and naturally, Julian didn’t have much to say about that, and just hung up.
Then we had a punishment meeting at Cabinet, as we called it, when they all sort of laid into us. I like Julian, but he was under so much strain. He was very unhappy. And we stayed. They were furious. But all 12 of us going?
UKICE: Did you, as a group, ever consider publicly supporting a referendum by this point? Is it something you talked about?
AR: I think that some of them did support it in the indicative votes, but I can’t really recall if anybody came out for it. This is why it irritates me when people say, ‘You’re all trying to stop Brexit’. It’s just not true. We were just trying to do what we thought was the right form of Brexit.
UKICE: Did you think that the Norway option was a viable option? Is that what you meant by ‘soft Brexit’, or was it something different?
AR: I didn’t champion it, but I thought it was worth exploring. I would have preferred the Norway option to no deal, that’s for sure.
UKICE: We’ve got a Cabinet that’s split and having crisis meetings. Did it manage to do the rest of government business at the time, or was there just stasis on everything except Brexit?
AR: It’s a fair question. This is why I can’t remember so much of it, because, actually, in 2016, 2017 and 2018, I was really doing my job, and it was pretty full on. I think it was just in 2019 where everything began to fall apart, where there were so many breakfast meetings.
I remember, when I got back into Cabinet, Philip Hammond said to me, ‘Thank goodness. We need somebody to organise those meetings, Amber’. So I was like, ‘Okay, here I am. I’ll run around with the diary’. There were so many different WhatsApp groups being formed the whole time. 15 January, that was one of them, when we lost the vote by a huge amount. There were endless WhatsApp meetings.
Then, as it became clear that Theresa May was losing, basically, and the hard Brexit and Boris group were picking up, people began to disappear from WhatsApp groups, and go to ones I didn’t know about.
UKICE: Did you get to know Theresa May better during this time? You said, you didn’t really know her particularly well in June 2016.
AR: I had got to know her a bit better. She’s not a very clubbable person, but she is a very authentic, and the word I want to look for is a ‘truthful’ person. So, I respected her for that. She was fair about what things worked and what things didn’t work, and she was very supportive of me when I was Home Secretary. Apart from the fact I couldn’t do much on immigration, there were plenty of other things to do good things on, such as on the response to terrorism and on our approach to the social media companies, and the changes we made there that are lasting. She was very helpful.
UKICE: She announced, in March 2019, that she would go once her Withdrawal Agreement was through. Were you surprised? Do you think it was inevitable that she would have to make way for somebody else?
AR: I think it became inevitable, because the party was so determined not to accept her compromise Brexit. They had the numbers, and they had the membership, and they went after her, pretty brutally, with all the BRINO (Brexit in Name Only) stuff and the attack on her deal as not being a real Brexit, as though it was a religion. I would be for a much more practical approach to politics. I found all that useless, really. It wasn’t going to help anybody’s lives by being quite so religious about their type of Brexit.
The Johnson Government
UK in Changing Europe (UKICE): How did Boris Johnson persuade you to join his government?
Amber Rudd (AR): I was kind of surprised to be asked, really. But I tried to get Jeremy (Hunt) elected, and Jeremy had persuaded me that he needed to leave no deal Brexit on the table, which I hated. But because I wanted to support Jeremy, I accepted it. So, I felt I didn’t have any reason not to stay in his Cabinet, really, so I tried.
I tried because I keep on talking about compromise and wanting to make things work, and it felt the right thing to do to try to work with Boris.
UKICE: Did you think there was a greater risk of a no deal Brexit under Boris Johnson than Theresa May, and that he was actually serious that he might do it?
AR: Yes, I did. What I found so difficult about Boris was that he was saying one thing and doing another, which Theresa May would never have done.
UKICE: You then had tactics emerging to try to get Brexit done by 31 October, such as the prorogation decision. When did you start to think, ‘I’m not going to be able to stay for this, this is moving in a direction I’m very uncomfortable with’?
AR: The tactics were too much for me. The prorogation tipped me over the edge. We’d looked at prorogation under Theresa May, but fleetingly, because it felt so absurd. I remember being asked about it, publicly, by a journalist once, and I said, ‘We are not the Stuart kings’. It just seemed too ridiculous.
UKICE: Why was that discussed? Was it to get around the Speaker saying that you couldn’t bring the meaningful vote back again at the time?
AR: Yes. But of course, it backfired on the Johnson Government, because it took too long to get the permission for the prorogation. But the point is that I got a text from Philip Hammond on the morning – he’d found out – saying, ‘Government is about to be prorogued.’ I thought, ‘Surely not. There’s been no discussion at all’. So I called a couple of colleagues – Nicky Morgan, Jo Johnson – and said, “Do you know about this?” They said no.
Then we got a message that Cabinet was called. I’m thought, ‘I bet it has been called, because the leak is out’. I think Jacob (Rees-Mogg) had been spotted. The Cabinet took place, and we were told, ‘The reason why prorogation is taking place is because this Parliament has come to an end. Sitting has come to an end, and it’s been a long one, so it’s a very reasonable thing to do’. Obviously, completely untrue.
So, I asked to see the legal advice, and Julian also asked to see the legal advice. Boris always agrees to everything, so he said, ‘Yes, of course. Of course you can’. Geoffrey (Cox) said, ‘Yes, it’ll be quite a short one, but yes’. I’m like, ‘Okay, great’.
So, I waited for the legal advice, which they wouldn’t give me, of course. I spoke to Geoffrey Cox a couple of times, and he said, ‘It’s very difficult for me to give you written legal advice, because under the humble address, I’d have to procure it and show it’. I think he was in dispute, wasn’t he, with Joanna Cherry, at the time?
UKICE: Yes, there were the two court cases on the prorogation. One was Joanna Cherry’s. The other one was the Gina Miller team.
AR: Yes. So he didn’t want to. I said, ‘But surely, there must be something. You must have written something down as the Attorney General’. I quoted the ministerial code to him, which, I think it was after the Iraq decision, was adapted to say that all cabinet ministers could request full legal advice, not just summaries. I think I was marking myself out as a troublesome cabinet minister by this point. They kept on saying I could get it, but they weren’t going to give it to me, so I decided to resign.
UKICE: We’ve heard stories of Number 10 ringing round others who were on ‘resignation watch’. Did you expect your resignation to trigger lots of others?
AR: I don’t think I did, really. I resigned because I couldn’t take it. It wasn’t a political calculation, it was just that I no longer wanted to support this strategy. Once I’d made that decision, a couple of days after prorogation, I couldn’t wait to go.
UKICE: What was it like seeing some of the people that you’d worked very closely with in the Cabinet expelled from the Conservative Party, when they rebelled on the Benn-Burt bill?
AR: That was hard, too. I thought that was a mistake. I spoke to Dominic Cummings about it. I spoke to the Prime Minister about it. I went to the meeting that happened with the 21. There was a small overlap, just before they had been expelled, where I was still a Secretary of State. There was a meeting, on the day of the vote, and the Prime Minister asked me to come and sit next to him, so I was on the wrong side of this.
In front of me were Philip Hammond and Ed Vaizey and all that lot, and I was sitting next to the Prime Minister, trying to support him, wondering how this was going to go. It was a very uncomfortable meeting, not just for me, because they put their points across. At one point, towards the end, the Prime Minister said, ‘You just want to stop Brexit’. Again, it’s the age old, ‘You’re not a believer. Therefore, you don’t belong’.
He didn’t properly engage at all with Philip Hammond and co. He was just determined to expel them, which he did.
UKICE: Can I just put a counterfactual to you? If Boris Johnson hadn’t got the election he wanted, if the SNP and the Lib Dems had not ultimately said, ‘Yes, we’re going to vote for that election’, would you have come out in favour of another referendum?
AR: Possibly. I can’t be sure, but possibly, yes. I thought that the whole indicative votes type thing was quite a sensible way of trying to find a compromise for this parliament. But I can see, now, that the ERG would never have supported that. They would never have supported a result that wasn’t the one that they felt they had earned from winning the EU referendum.
One of the reasons I didn’t support a second referendum was that I thought that we would lose it again. What you had was a clash of the referendum against parliamentary democracy. I think we had to have a general election, at some stage. The fact that the Lib Dems supported it, of course, was absolutely critical. But I think we were all breathing a slight sigh of relief, because it had been so painful, and it was so difficult getting in and out of Parliament. The scale of people’s anger, irritation, abuse; it had to come to an end.
I thought long and hard about whether to stand again. But frankly, I went to see Boris. I thought he was furious with me. There had been a rumour that I was going to stand as a Lib Dem, which I wasn’t going to do, so he said, ‘Would you like to stand in Mid Sussex? What do you want to do, Amber? I need you by my side’. I said, ‘No, you don’t, because I’ll just be rebelling all the time.” I decided to go. It was absolutely fine, and it was the right decision for me.
UKICE: What did you make of Boris Johnson’s deal, which revived the protocol that Theresa May had rejected while you were still in the Cabinet in February 2018, with the addition of a consent mechanism? Did you think, ‘That’s a sensible way through this, and it’s avoided no deal’?
AR: It was what it was. It was a compromise deal that put the border in the Irish Sea, instead of a backstop on the island of Ireland. It was thin in places. It was hard Brexit, but at least it was not no deal. Boris used his personality to try to sell it as a great success. I wouldn’t call it a great success, but I would call it a better outcome than no deal. He’d sort of gaslit us all to that stage, so I hoped, then, we could move on.
UKICE: Do you think the Conservative Party has changed for good?
AR: I think it’s changed for this generation. I’ve said this before, but it’s true: people like me would not get selected as an MP anymore. If you’re not able to say, like Big Brother, ‘I don’t just support Brexit; I love it’, then I think you will find it difficult for the local association to support you.
I also think that there’s a fault line in the middle of all the Brexit campaigning and the Brexit outcome, which is that people know it’s difficult. Even the Vote Leave people know it’s difficult. We can see it all around us. There are small manufacturers who are stopping exporting. That was always going to happen. There was always going to be difficulty. There’s a lie, which is that it’s unadulterated good. It’s not.
Occasionally, you hear the truth, which is when Dominic Raab says, ‘We’ll know in 10 years’ time’. In the meantime, it’s hard for people. It’s hard for people in their businesses and their jobs. It’s hard for people who want to continue to export to the EU. It just is. I resent the fact that nobody is honest about that.
UKICE: Do you think Brexit has changed the relationship between the Conservatives and the business community? Because, obviously, much of business wanted a different sort of Brexit to the one that occurred.
AR: Yes, I do think it has. I think it’s lowered trust in politicians, but that can be rebuilt. But I think the Conservative Party, as a friend of business, is going to be difficult to rebuild. That’s the opportunity for Labour, really.
UKICE: Do you think that some of this disruption that businesses are suffering will come back to haunt the Prime Minister? He’s been pretty Teflon, so far, when it comes to the practical impacts of Brexit. Do you think that will remain the case?
AR: It’s pretty difficult to tell, because we’ve had such a difficult year because of the pandemic. But yes, I think it will. I think that it will be increasingly evident. It’s more than teething problems. But on the other hand, the ability for the UK to move with nimble quickness on vaccination, compared to the EU, has been remarkable. That will be, in a way, the offset against any impact on the economy.
UKICE: I’m quite intrigued by your comment about the fact that you wouldn’t get selected as a Conservative candidate in today’s Conservative Party. Looking around, do you see any obvious short-term or medium-term political home for people with your set of views?
AR: I get asked that a lot by friends and former campaigning contacts who are Conservatives, but who are fundamentally pro-EU. It’s not that they want to be characterised as going back into the EU. Most of us know that that’s not going to happen. But it’s about still feeling that the UK’s relationship with the EU is its most important foreign relationship. They don’t know who to vote for.
I’m a Conservative, and I’m in too deep to do anything else. But for everybody else, I don’t know where those people go. It doesn’t look like there is a political home for them. Maybe there will be at some stage, or maybe the Conservative Party will stop sounding quite so aggressive about people who took a different view on the EU.
This is a point that I made to Michael , yesterday, that if the by-election is won on the basis of, ‘Don’t vote Labour. They want to undo Brexit’, it sends another signal to Conservative former Remainers that they don’t have a home in the Conservative Party.
I don’t know. It’s just a personal thing that matters to me, because politics is about what you believe in and your values. You can’t just change them for another leader or for a different point of view at a different stage of life. So, it may be a tiny amount, and it may be that the calculation is how we win, but nevertheless, they will leave quite a few people homeless.
UKICE: Reflecting back over the last fairly stunning five years, are there any ‘If only’ moments?” Do you see opportunities where if something had happened differently, we might have ended up in a position that you would have felt more comfortable with?
AR: I think that the coalition between 2010 and 2015 was successful. It worked for the political parties. Well, less so for the Lib Dems, I get that. But as a governing body, for five years, it was successful, because everybody was pulled back into the centre, which is where I am most comfortable. I think we got a lot of good things done.
Since 2015, I think politics has gone slightly crazy. We had, in 2016, the referendum, in 2017, the election, I’m sure something important happened in 2018, another election in 2019, Covid-19 in 2020. 2010 to 2015 looks like blissful, calm years, by comparison to what’s happened since then. I hope we can get back to that sooner rather than later.
I thought that David Cameron was a very good Prime Minister. I think he was calm and he did some good things, and I wish we could have had more of that.