Why Amber Rudd's shift on a no-deal Brexit is good news for Boris Johnson

The frontrunner's camp believe that Tory MPs would prefer to accept leaving the EU without an agreement than endure the political pain of seeking to prevent it. 

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What is the point of Amber Rudd? That's the question some Conservative MPs are asking after the Work and Pensions Secretary resiled from her opposition to a no-deal Brexit in a series of radio interviews this morning. 

Despite having been one of the most vocal cabinet opponents of leaving the EU without an agreement, Rudd now says that she has accepted that no-deal must be "part of the armoury". Even more crucially, she suggests she is reconciled to leaving the EU by 31 October regardless of the terms of departure — though her preference remains to do so with a deal. 

Rudd's critics in the Tory parliamentary party grumble that her shift is really a plea for a job in Boris Johnson's cabinet. If that is true, then it's at least consistent with the thinking of other cabinet ministers — namely Matt Hancock — who have concluded their personal and political interests are better served by boarding the Johnson train than standing vainly in its path. Rudd's allies, meanwhile, say she has merely recognised that the electoral context has now changed: with the Tories on the run from Nigel Farage, leaving by Halloween really is, in Johnson's words, "do or die".

But neither explanation will pass muster for those Conservative MPs who believe Rudd has failed in every objective she has set herself. Their charge sheet is as follows: Rudd's One Nation caucus, sold to colleagues as a scheme to anoint a candidate opposed to no-deal, has quite obviously not fulfilled its founding aim. Jeremy Hunt, who Rudd has endorsed, is going to lose; and now she is set to end the contest endorsing the very outcome she intended and expected to stop. 

It's for this reason that Team Johnson are chipper, though their high spirits owe less to Rudd's implicit support for their Brexit policy than what they think her journey signifies. The working assumption in the frontrunner's camp is that, when push comes to shove, nowhere near enough Conservative MPs will be willing or able to take radical action to prevent no-deal — be that through withdrawing their support from the government in a confidence vote, or another procedural wheeze.

Johnson strategists point to the failure of Dominic Grieve's bid to legally bar the next prime minister from proroguing parliament earlier this week, and the passage by a single vote of another amendment that will make prorogation slightly more difficult, as evidence that the parliamentary arithmetic is really in their favour (despite the truism that the Commons is opposed to no-deal). They have taken Rudd's shift as further evidence that Tory MPs would prefer to make their peace with a no-deal Brexit than incur the political pain of acting to stop it. "If Rudd isn't willing to walk," says one campaign source, "then they definitely won't get enough come crunch time."

Others believe it is too early to tell. Johnson backers who oppose no-deal believe the real decision point will come in October, which is why they are more relaxed about the failure of Grieve's amendments than one might expect. They insist that, whatever Rudd and those like her say now, the necessary change in numbers can and will come once the process reaches its endgame in the autumn. Better to expend political capital on measures with teeth. But even optimists admit that they cannot be quite so sure as they once were — and that their assumptions could well be, in the words of one cabinet source, "hopelessly naive".

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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