Amber Rudd has resigned as work and pensions secretary and quit as a Conservative MP in a fresh blow to the beleaguered premiership of Boris Johnson.
The departure of Ms Rudd, one of the most senior moderate Europhiles in the Tory government, came just two days after the resignation of Jo Johnson, the brother of the prime minister.
Ms Rudd said she no longer believed that leaving the EU with a deal was the government’s main objective — despite Mr Johnson having claimed that a No Deal scenario was only “a million to one”.
“The government is expending a lot of energy to prepare for ‘No Deal’ but I have not seen the same level of intensity go into our talks with the European Union, who have asked us to present alternative arrangements for the Irish backstop.”
In a letter to Mr Johnson, Ms Rudd said that the expulsion of 21 “talented” and “loyal” Tory MPs last week was an act of “political vandalism” that was also “an assault on decency and democracy”.
Those MPs — including various former cabinet ministers such as Ken Clarke — were forced out of the party after they voted with opposition MPs to block a No Deal Brexit.
“This short sighted culling of my colleagues has stripped the party of broad-minded and dedicated Conservative MPs,” Ms Rudd wrote in her letter to the prime minister. “I cannot support this act of political vandalism.”
Ms Rudd, one of the most pro-European figures in the party, was among the “awkward squad” of MPs who have fought hard to prevent a No Deal Brexit. They included Greg Clark, Philip Hammond and David Gauke, who have all been thrown out of the party after last week’s vote.
Her brother, Roland Rudd — who is the founder of PR firm Finsbury — is a prominent figure in the “People’s Vote” campaign for a second referendum.
Ms Rudd had also criticised Mr Johnson in the past, suggesting during the 2016 referendum that although he was the “life and soul of the party” he was “not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”.
However, her decision to take a post in the Johnson cabinet was seen as evidence that he was seeking to forge a more consensual, One Nation government.
The Rudd resignation makes life even more difficult for Mr Johnson as he seeks to find a way out of his political impasse. The New York Times claimed on Saturday that Mr Johnson had been in tears when his brother Jo resigned on Thursday with the damaging claim that he had chosen country over family — a direct criticism of the prime minister’s strategy.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said: “The Conservative party has always been a broad church shaped by those within it. Gutted to see Amber leave – but hope other One Nation Tories will stay and fight for the values we share.”
But Eurosceptics welcomed the resignation, with Douglas Carswell, a former Tory MP — who left to join Ukip before the 2016 referendum — suggesting the party’s poll lead would increase without “Rudd and co”.
The sacking of the 21 rebels last week has sent shockwaves through UK politics, given that the expelled MPs include high-profile figures such as Ken Clarke, a one-time chancellor, and Rory Stewart, who stood for the leadership this summer.
Mr Johnson argued that the rebellion — which secured the success of cross-party legislation to block No Deal — has stripped him of the necessary leverage in Brussels to achieve a new exit deal at a crucial summit in mid-October.
The expulsion of former chancellor Philip Hammond was particularly shocking given that he was chancellor — the second most powerful politician in the country — under Theresa May’s administration until the summer.
Mr Hammond on Saturday threatened legal action against the Conservatives as Britain’s ruling party descended further into a bitter civil war.
Writing in The Surrey Advertiser, the MP for Runnymede and Weybridge said he was discussing with colleagues how to react to the removal of the party whip.
“I am currently taking legal advice with regard to the lawfulness of the actions taken against me and my colleagues last week and the processes that have been followed,” he said.
“In the meantime, I have written to the Chief Whip asking him to provide a formal statement of the reasons for the removal of the whip, the process by which that decision was made and the procedure by which it may be challenged. I will decide in due course how I intend to proceed.”
Mr Hammond said on Saturday night that he wanted the government to achieve Brexit and argued that the bill blocking No Deal would give Mr Johnson enough time to negotiate a new deal.
“I am saddened that the Conservative Party (run by people who were serial rebels under Theresa May) has resorted to purging anyone expressing dissent. We all know only too well where that road ends up,” he wrote.
Mr Hammond said he had been a member of the Conservative Party for 45 years, an MP for 22 years, a frontbencher for 21 of them and a cabinet minister for the last 9 years.
“This is my party, and I am not going to be pushed out of it by unelected Downing Street advisers who are not Conservatives and who care not one jot whether the party has a future,” he wrote. Dominic Cummings, the chief of staff in Number 10, is understood to not belong to the Tory party.
Mr Johnson on Friday vowed to use his “powers of persuasion” to secure a new Brexit deal in Brussels next month.