The ex-home secretary’s rise and fall is typical of an inexperienced elite that regards ordinary people with contempt.
At least one consolation remains for Amber Rudd. Drummed out of the Home Office, she can now spend more time in her constituency of Hastings: the same seaside resort she found irresistible because “I wanted to be within two hours of London, and I could see we were going to win it”. Yet Rudd loves her electorate, rhapsodising about some of them as people “who prefer to be on benefits by the seaside … they’re moving down here to have easier access to friends and drugs and drink”.
Relax. I come neither to praise nor to bury Rudd, but to analyse her. Or, rather, to place her in context. What stands out about this latest crash-and-burn is how well it represents the current Westminster elite, even down to the contempt for the poor sods who vote for them.
Rudd exemplifies a political class light on expertise and principle, yet heavy on careerism and happy to ruin lives. All the key traits are here. In a dizzying ascent, she went from rookie MP in 2010 to secretary of state for energy in 2015, before being put in charge of the Home Office the very next year. Lewis Hamilton would kill for such an accelerant, yet it leaves no time to master detail, such as your own department’s targets. Since 2014 Sajid Javid, Rudd’s replacement, has hopped from culture to business to local government, rarely staying in any post for more than a year. Margaret Thatcher kept her cabinet ministers at one department for most of a parliamentary term, but this stepping-stone culture turns urgent national problems – such as police funding and knife crime – into PR firefighting.
Another hallmark of this set is the disposability of its values. Cameron hugs Arctic huskies, then orders aides to “get rid of all the green crap”. As for Rudd, the May cabinet’s big liberal vowed to force companies to reveal the numbers of their foreign staff, stoking the embers of racism in a tawdry bid to boost her standing with Tory activists. Praised by Osborne for her “human” touch, she was revealed this week privately moaning about “bed-blocking” in British detention centres.
And when things get sticky, you put your officials in the line of fire. During the Brexit referendum, Osborne revved up the Treasury to generate apocalyptic scenarios about the cost of leaving. While doomsday never came, his tactic caused incalculable damage both to the standing of economists and to the civil service’s reputation for impartiality. Rudd settled for trashing her own officials for their “appalling” treatment of Windrush-era migrants.
None of these traits are entirely new, nor are they the sole preserve of the blue team. At the fag end of Gordon Brown’s government, the sociologist Aeron Davis studied the 49 politicians on both frontbenches. They split readily into two types. An older lot had spent an average of 15 years in business or law or campaigning before going into parliament – then debated and amended and sat on select committees for another nine years before reaching the cabinet.
The younger bunch had pre-Westminster careers that typically came to little more than seven years, often spent at thinktanks or as ministerial advisers. They took a mere three years to vault into cabinet ranks. This isn’t “professionalisation”. It is nothing less than the creation of a new Westminster caste: a group of self-styled leaders with no proof of prowess and nothing in common with their voters. May’s team is stuffed full of them. After conducting more than 350 interviews with frontbench politicians, civil servants, FTSE chief executives and top financiers, Davis has collected his insights in a book. The argument is summed up in its title: Reckless Opportunists.
Rudd’s career lays bare the new rules of power: crash around and cash out -Aditya Chakrabortty