Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has quit the cabinet and the Conservatives, dealing a fresh setback to Boris Johnson’s government.
Ms Rudd hit out at the prime minister over his decision to kick out 21 Tory MPs and ban them from standing for the party at a general election – attacking the move as an “act of political vandalism”.
The rebels had the Tory whip removed after they voted last Tuesday with the Opposition in their attempts to stop the UK leaving the European Union without a deal on 31 October.
Ms Rudd, who was seen as a leading pro-European voice in the government, wrote: “I cannot stand by as good, loyal moderate Conservatives are expelled.”
She said in her resignation letter: “This short-sighted culling of my colleagues has stripped the party of broad-minded and dedicated Conservative MPs.
“I cannot support this act of political vandalism.”
She called it an “assault on decency and democracy” after the prime minister sacked 21 “talented, loyal One Nation Conservatives”.
And she also said she thought a no-deal Brexit was now the government’s key aim.
While she had accepted the need to keep no-deal as an option, the now Independent MP said she “no longer believed leaving with a deal is the government’s main objective”.
The 21 rebels voted to give Opposition MPs control of the order paper and start the process of blocking a no-deal.
They included two former chancellors Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke as well as Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames.
I have resigned from Cabinet and surrendered the Conservative Whip.
I cannot stand by as good, loyal moderate Conservatives are expelled.
I have spoken to the PM and my Association Chairman to explain.
I remain committed to the One Nation values that drew me into politics. pic.twitter.com/kYmZHbLMES
— Amber Rudd MP (@AmberRuddHR) September 7, 2019
On Twitter, Hastings and Rye MP Ms Rudd, who was also minister for women and equalities, said: “I have resigned from cabinet and surrendered the Conservative whip.
“I have spoken to the PM and my association chairman to explain.
“I remain committed to the One Nation values that drew me into politics.”
A No 10 spokesperson reacted by saying: “We are disappointed to learn that Amber has chosen to leave government and the party.
“She was a talented welfare minister but all ministers who joined the cabinet signed up to leaving the EU on 31 October come what may, delivering on the referendum result as the public were promised. That has not changed.”
A senior government source said: “As the polls show, the public do not back attempts by some MPs to cancel the referendum.
“Resignations to chase headlines won’t change the fact that people want Brexit done so that government can deliver on the domestic priorities people care about like more police, new hospitals and great schools.”
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: “So sorry to see Amber resign – a first-rate minister, genuinely wonderful person, and someone I’m proud to call my friend.
“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.”
David Gauke, the former secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor who was among the 21 rebels, tweeted: “I’m sure this has not been an easy decision. But it is brave and principled and is all about putting the national interest first.”
Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, tweeted: “Johnson government falling apart. He’s being totally found out…”
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage tweeted: “Why did Boris give ministerial posts to all these Remainers in the first place? Confused thinking to say the least.”
It has been a bruising week for Mr Johnson in which he has suffered four damaging parliamentary defeats over Brexit and an early general election and seen his own brother Jo quit his government as well as backbencher Phillip Lee defecting from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats.
The prime minister, who is still pushing for an election, has said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit past the 31 October deadline.
But the former director of public prosecutions Lord MacDonald has told Sky News that Mr Johnson could go to prison if he refuses to delay the UK’s departure from the EU in the face of court action.
The PM has said he will not agree an extension, despite parliament passing a law forcing him to do so.