Our September meeting was a bit special. Not only did it take place earlier in the month and on a Friday morning, the packed house welcomed, after a long absence, Amber Rudd MP. In the last few years, we have not had the opportunity for an update from the former Home Secretary to attend one of our meetings, so with such an absence, there was much to discuss, not least a popular TV series.
With Keeley Hawes in a role that some suggested might have been inspired by Amber, she began by expertly avoiding spoiling BBC1’s hit series Bodyguard; as with all good television it seems there is good fiction and then there is reality. Real threats and half a dozen protection officers do not, it seems, charge around our capital in regular shoot outs; whilst nearer to home there are the more mundane, but no less important local issues of parking, neighbourly relations and Boris’ jogging regime, maybe one for another time.
Amber’s leading message was that there was still a big job to do in Hastings, to fulfil the pledges that she made to her constituents. With Brexit coming, she wanted to answer the concerns of businesses wanting to know if they can plan, invest and employ, knowing that the political landscape is fractious and a rocky ride, as ‘the last thing we want is more instability’.
She was plain speaking that she could only tell us what the current plans are, and businesses will have to adapt their strategies as a deal proceeds. She agreed with the PM that the Chequers plan was the best route, with a compromise that protects manufacturers and employers, delivering a Brexit for ‘both 48% and the 52%’ remarking later on that if it was a choice between this and no deal (too damaging) she would prefer a plan akin to Chequers as the smoothest way to deliver Brexit, and if not Chequers, she would be more amenable to a Norwegian type of soft Brexit than the Canada+ style of trade deal. The negotiations are still of course ongoing, particularly with the difficult nature of being a minority government, the withdrawal agreement hopefully coming at the end of the year, her focus has always been on helping the businesses in Hastings and their employees, not selling the area short.
In more local focus, she remarked that whilst she has seen, as Hastings and Rye’s MP, positive changes, like the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road and the duelling of A21 in Pembury, she remains ambitious for more with her ongoing mission to improve the connections for the town. The meeting was before her annual rail summit, where she remarked that they are making ‘good, if slow, steady progress’, trying to bring in the case to the Department for Transport, where the issues of investment are slowly being worked on for high speed rail connectivity. With the initial promise of work on the Ashford connection, she still believes this can lead to the development of the Marshlink and other investments needed, ‘knocking off twenty minutes of the journey time’, that will deliver a significant change to what we can do and the economic impact, for business, commuters and people in the local area.
With this view of investment, she welcomed the great GSCE/A-Levels results from the local schools, and the Hastings Opportunity Area funding, one of twelve areas that benefits from a pool of £72 million, to gain resources for young people and the businesses, schools and providers that work with them. ‘It is not simply about academies, but the issues around learning as well’ she said, that while there has been a lot of investment already, this will prove the biggest sea-change and progress, taking other elements like literacy, wider wellbeing, mental health and enrichment. This is complementing her Jobs and Apprenticeship’s Fair, hosted in East Sussex College Hastings, trying to bridge the gap between local businesses looking for talent and the talent choosing to stay in Hastings and make these businesses strive.
When asked how she felt after her resignation from the Cabinet, she said she was delighted to be able to spend more time with her friends again. Whilst joking that every vote counted, clearly a nod to how close the last electoral vote had been, she felt that she now had a lot more opportunity to serve whether it be in the cabinet or on the backbench. She apologised that government has been focused too much on Brexit, but went on to emphasise her commitment on jobs, transport and education was paramount, and wanting to bring further improvement to the area.