The battle for Hastings

The rain is pounding down and a vicious wind is whipping off the dirty brown sea. It is hardly the moment to take seaside snaps, but Amber Rudd is putting a brave face on it as she poses for pictures by a grubby BT phone box, framed by grey sky and the skeleton of Hastings’ burnt-out pier.

“Doesn’t it look a bit depressing?” she laughs. The photographer has stood her by the very phone box that just an hour earlier locals had told her was being used by drug dealers.

Rudd is determined to see the brighter side of Hastings. She points out that the pier – almost destroyed by fire in 2010 – will be rebuilt just in time for the 2015 election. “It will bring a feelgood factor to the town,” she says, her skirt and hair flying in the blustering wind. “It’s like having a burnt kitchen in the middle of your house, you can’t avoid it. You walk along quite happily and then you see that and – urgh! It sends out absolutely the wrong signal.”

She is warming to her theme as she points along the deserted beachfront: “Look along there, that funny boat-shaped thing you can see, that is the new Jerwood Gallery,” she says. “It’s part of the whole Hastings cultural renaissance … Hastings is one of the 11 finalists for city of culture for 2017,” she says in her cut-glass accent. But the locals thought the notion was ridiculous, didn’t they? “Yes, I’m afraid they did. But I think it’s a brilliant idea!”

Rudd has a lot riding on Hastings. This faded seaside town represents her reinvention from a jack-of-all-trades single mother to a serious politician. The A-List candidate entered parliament in 2010, having won the Hastings and Rye seat with a majority of just 1,993. Last September she was appointed George Osborne’s ministerial aide, her card clearly marked for senior office. But she has long odds to beat to hold on to her seat. Current polls suggest that Rudd will be among dozens of Tory MPs washed away in a tidal wave of Labour victories in 2015.

Rudd at the election count in 2010

Alive to the threat, the most marginal Conservatives in parliament have set up the “40 group” – 40 men and women who will fight the next election with exceptionally narrow majorities – to ensure that the leadership listens to the needs of its most vulnerable MPs. “It’s the club that nobody wants to be in,” jokes Rudd, a prominent member of the group founded by Warrington South MP David Mowat, who has a majority of 1,553. Understandably anxious colleagues include Eric Ollerenshaw, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, with a majority of 333, and Dan Byles, who scraped in for North Warwickshire and Bedworth by just 54 votes.

The 40 swap ideas, network and act as a kind of counselling service for each other. They get some leeway with the whips to be excused from votes so they can focus on their constituencies; Conservative central office also gives them more money for campaigning.

This week will be the first big reality check for Rudd and her colleagues in marginal seats as Britons go to the polls in 35 councils in England and Wales. More than 2,400 council seats are up for grabs in what will be spun as a big dress rehearsal for 2015. The Tories are defending 1,459 seats against just 273 for Labour. Even the most optimistic Conservatives are mentally preparing for a loss of several hundred councillors. The Tories will blame the defeat on the “midterm blues” that befall all governing parties – but privately the party is panicking.

David Cameron knows that to have any hope of remaining prime minister for a second term his party must at the very least hold constituencies such as Hastings – seat number 30 on Labour’s 106-strong target list – that are not natural Tory strongholds. To do that he must win back voters who are turning away from the party – low-skilled women and Ukip men – as well as attract new ones, British Asians and younger urbanites.

But Cameron and his backbench supporters also have to fight the enemy within, the rump of restive backbenchers who are fed up with their prime minister and seem intent on stoking up leadership talk and dissent. The split between the modernising Cameroons and the traditional rightwing – papered over by Cameron before the 2010 election – is being prised open once more. It is an electoral no-no that will decimate marginal seats, say Mowat and Rudd, who are pressing their leaders to focus more on the cost of living, jobs, schools and the NHS and less on Europe. Divided parties don’t win elections. Neither do ones that veer from the centre ground.

Earlier, Rudd and I sat opposite each other on the 8.17am train from Charing Cross to Hastings. The route took us through a clutch of Tory strongholds – Jo Johnson’s Orpington (17,200 majority), Michael Fallon’s Sevenoaks (17,515 majority), John Stanley’s Tonbridge and Malling (18,178) – towards more uncertain territory at the end of the line.

Clockwise from top left: fishing boats drawn up on Hastings beach; a view of the ruined pier; miniature golf on the front; and Marine Parade

Brought up between a townhouse in Kensington and a country mansion in Wiltshire, Rudd has no historic connection to this dilapidated seaside town on England’s south coast. But she decided to stand for selection back in 2006 for two reasons: “I wanted to be within two hours of London and I could see we were going to win it.”

Back then, there was a stampede of A-List candidates vying for Hastings. These top 100 or so candidates were given first dibs on some of the party’s plum seats as Cameron sought to inject more women and ethnic minorities on to the Tory benches. “I won by one vote,” Rudd says, recalling how she edged it over Sam Gyimah, now Cameron’s parliamentary aide. “And now he’s got one of the safest seats in the country.” She laughs ruefully: “Everybody in the finals, there were four or five others, have got majorities over 5,000.”

The Hastings and Rye seat has passed back and forth between the Tories and Labour ever since it was created in 1983, a black spot on the Conservatives’ near-absolute command of the affluent southeast.

Steeped in history – notably as the site, in 1066, of England’s most famous battle – Hastings has been dogged by bad luck. It was one of the medieval Cinque Ports but its power declined when it was repeatedly sacked by the French in the hundred years’ war. It reinvented itself as a Victorian resort, but again slid into decline as working-class Britons decided to jet off abroad and the empty town was filled up with problem families being shipped out of the London Docklands.

Hastings seafront

“A lot of unemployed families were moved to Hastings and places were built for them. They’re communities of unemployed people. It’s been difficult dealing with that,” says Rudd, tucking her honey-blonde hair behind her ears as the train trundles through the stockbroker belt.

“You get people who are on benefits, who prefer to be on benefits by the seaside. They’re not moving down here to get a job, they’re moving down here to have easier access to friends and drugs and drink.”

Under Labour the town benefited from a £400m regeneration programme that saw the seafront spruced up and a new university campus built. London’s chattering classes wondered whether Hastings could become the new Brighton. But the town has suffered under Cameron’s austerity. It is the 11th biggest loser in the country among local authority areas, in terms of the sums that the benefit changes will take out of the local economy. It will lose £690 a year for every working age adult – quite a blow for an already depressed economy.

Rudd knows the odds are against her and is clinging to the hope that the personal vote could swing it for her as she tries to improve the rail line, build a mini bypass, reopen the pier. Aged 49, she badly wants the second term and talks of her political career as if it were her redemption. “I decided to take my life back. In my twenties I was leaving university, getting married or having a baby. And then, in my thirties, I was just keeping my head above water. When I hit 40 I thought I have got to get a grip of my life and really point it in the direction I want it to go rather than just swim hard against the current.”

She is the fourth child of a self-made stockbroker and an upper-class mother, a born-to-rule Tory with a black book so impressive that she had a gig as “aristocracy co-ordinator” for the party scenes of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Her former husband, the writer A.A. Gill, called her “the Silver Spoon” in his restaurant columns.

She and her siblings are like a minor version of the Johnsons. Her only brother Roland, founder of Finsbury PR firm, was called the most powerful spinner in the country by PR Week last year. Her sister Amanda runs Aveda hair and beauty products in Europe, while Melissa is a primary schoolteacher. She was the one by Rudd’s side at the Hastings count in 2010. She says the family is “very tight”. But there is an evident political chasm between Rudd and her brother, one of the “wise men” who advised Tony Blair. “It’s extraordinary,” she laughs. “But look at where he is.” He’s New Labour, you’re liberal Tory? “Exactly.”

Rebecca Nolan is a Hastings entrepreneur who converted her failing café into a dog grooming salon – Barkers-on-Sea – after winning £5,000 from a Rudd-inspired small business competition. She thinks the MP cannot but be tarnished by the backlash over Europe and the same-sex marriage vote, which prompted a furious response from the Tory grassroots. “A lot of people support Amber, she is a good MP, but I think they’ll lose the next election,” says Nolan. “Some of the questionable things the Conservatives have done are the problem. Europe, the referendum is important but it has come too late. Gay marriage has caused some problems and that is a generational thing.”

Hastings beach

It is a theme repeated throughout Hastings. Voters like Rudd, but dislike her party. “She’s done a fantastic job, but there is a lot of ill-feeling towards the Conservatives,” says Helen Crichton-Jenner, who owns a shoe shop. “The benefit changes have gone down badly here and in general people don’t seem particularly happy with how the country is being run.”

Lee Forster-Kirkham, another local businessman, sees things getting tougher in Hastings as benefits are squeezed. “We are a poor working-class community and there is not a lot of money around,” says the card-carrying Labour supporter. But he will vote Rudd come 2015. “She’s fresh and ambitious and bright and sparkly. There was a lot of suspicion at first, when she was canvassing, that she was a London candidate pretending to be from Hastings. But she has been very visible, she’s a good thing.”

Colin, a local pensioner and life-long Tory, says he is considering Ukip. “I think [gay marriage] is absolutely disgusting quite truthfully.”

“When it comes to a general election, I really don’t think they’ll still be thinking about anal sex,” says Rudd a little later as she poses for photos in her constituency office – at once grimacing and giggling over Colin’s remarks. “People like him will actually be looking around and going, does this town feel a bit better? And they will be asked to choose between Ed Miliband and David Cameron: that’s the whole thing.”

Cameron pitted against Miliband is how the Tories hope to win the election. But the big concern for Conservatives like Rudd is that the party appears divided, unable to coalesce around their leader – even though he consistently outpolls the party. Cameron’s detoxification of the Tory brand was never fully embraced by his more rightwing MPs and chunks of the grassroots, and in recent months those underlying divisions have risen to the surface once more. Some of this is self-inflicted – note the deeply divisive vote on gay marriage or Cameron’s insistence that the international aid budget should be ringfenced. But tensions have also been stoked by the rise of Ukip, a stuttering economy and panic that in two years the party will be back on the opposition benches. It has left Cameron torn between his modernising instincts and pressure to tack to the right as he ramps up the anti-immigration and Europe message.

Rudd visits the Barkers-on-Sea dog grooming salon

“It confuses voters,” says Andrew Hawkins, chairman of polling agency ComRes. “Conservatives think their immigration line should be resonating but they have had five years plus of hugging huskies, hoodies, gay marriage, then they take the line, foreigners are taking our jobs, and it rings hollow.”

The divisions within Downing Street and the party leave those stuck with swing seats cold. “I feel that if the MPs who are manoeuvring were in marginal seats, they might be more focused on winning the voters locally and less on positioning themselves nationally,” says Rudd. “Liam Fox [the former defence secretary] saying Tories would spend less on education and health is unhelpful. And I would ask him, if he were here, to stop.”

“Divided parties don’t win elections,” says Mowat. “If we bicker for 18 months, it will be really bad. On a human level it’s interesting, but electorally it’s not useful at all. It’s very hard for me to see any other scenario than that David Cameron will be the leader. We need to get behind him or everything unravels.”

Cameron has a huge task ahead of him to convert the sceptics. Blue-collar women who helped the Tories win key marginal seats such as Thurrock in 2010 have turned their backs on the party, with support among these working women falling to its lowest levels in 16 years, when Labour rode into power on a landslide. Black and Asian voters are also not voting Tory, regardless of their social background. While wealthier white voters are likely to support the Conservatives, there is no such gap between different socioeconomic groups of non-white voters.

“No one in 2010 won out, because there was a large number of voters who had gone completely off Labour and liked Cameron, but weren’t sure the rest of the party had changed,” says a No 10 moderniser, who insists the party must cling to the centre ground despite the pressure from the right.

“The risk for us is we lose more support to Ukip but our only hope of a majority lies in winning people over who voted Labour or Lib Dem and who are younger and disproportionately female and defined as being socially liberal.”

Rudd, standing in front of the burnt-out pier, hopes that its renaissance will help her clinch votes come 2015. With the national polls against her, all she can do is cling on to the power of the personal vote. “Nobody knows how much an individual MP can turn, it used to be 500, it could be 1,000. Grant Shapps [party chairman] will tell you that he turned a 6,000 Labour majority into a Conservative majority of 17,000. If the worst comes to the worst, it’s been a great five years.”

Elizabeth Rigby is the FT’s deputy political editor

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