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19 September 2017

Does her small majority mean Amber Rudd’s hopes of becoming PM are already over?

The Home Secretary is well-liked at Westminster, but has a narrow hold on her seat.

By Stephen Bush

Among Conservative MPs, there is only one politician at cabinet level who arouses any enthusiasm: the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. As I wrote in my morning briefing yesterday, at present, she is in the box seat as far as first place among Tory MPs is concerned.

But Rudd has a problem: her wafer-thin majority. Her constituency of Hastings and Rye has gone with the national winner at every election since its creation, and appropriately in 2017 it was on a knife-edge: just 346 votes separated Rudd from her Labour challenger.

Although in some ways the problem is secondary – as if Rudd loses her seat, then Labour will be heading into power, whether in some form of minority government or as a majority one, at which point, the Conservatives would seek a new leader in any case. But as the Liberal Democrats have frequently found, the problem with having a leader in a marginal seat is it takes your biggest gun off the field of battle if they are continually having to pop back to their constituency to defend it.

At the last election, neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn had to campaign extensively in Maidenhead or Islington North, while Tim Farron had to fight a rearguard action to hold onto his seat, which was solidly Tory until he won it in 2005 and nearly flipped back to the Conservatives in 2017.

It also adds a note of soap opera to your general election campaign that no one wants or needs if your Prime Minister-designate is having to fend off questions about what happens in their own seat.

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But there are two factors at play that are not commonly discussed. Firstly, it’s not as if Hastings (or Rye for that matter) are a particular part of the Rudd brand and she could very easily pop up in a safe seat elsewhere. Not least because you can easily finesse an argument about having been an MP in a marginal seat for seven years but now as Prime Minister you need to focus on the whole country, and so forth. Her supporters at Westminster are already discussing potential berths.

The second is the possibility of a wholesale boundary review on the basis of 650 seats not 600. Whatever happens, the current 600-seat review is dead in the water: neither the DUP, nor Conservative MPs who might lose out, will sign it off in its current form. But as the current constituency boundaries are so old and out-of-date, any review will be fairly destabilising, which would also allow Rudd to discreetly move to another, safer seat.

But as I’ve also said, the matter may not arise. Rudd’s pro-Europeanism and privately more liberal stance both mean that while she is well-placed to be the carrier of the Cameroon flame in the next Conservative leadership election, she faces an uphill battle to actually win.