The clear underdog in the current race for Number 10, it took accusations of skulduggery and careful vote management from Boris Johnson’s backers to see Jeremy Hunt overtake Michael Gove and make it to the final two candidates for the Conservative party membership to vote for.
In the era of Brexit all politicians are fundamentally judged on the way that they campaigned and voted three years ago and their current positions on a way forward out of the impasse. Hunt was a ‘remainer’, albeit not a particularly high-profile part of the original campaign. Today he has promised to deliver Brexit, including by ‘no deal’ if necessary. However, he does differ from Boris Johnson in one key respect over Brexit.
Hunt has emphasised his own deal making skills as a former successful entrepreneur before entering politics. His take on ‘delivering Brexit’, the now synonymous phrase used to describe the process, is that the current October 31st deadline shouldn’t be treated as a hard point of departure. Instead Hunt would be happy to delay it if that helps get a deal over the line.
What Hunt and his supporters would see as pragmatism, Johnson’s supporters see as weakness and an approach that undermines Britain’s negotiation position. This is why the more conspiracy minded believe that for Johnson to guarantee victory he needed to come up against a remainer or former-remainer candidate.
Now we’re down to two, Hunt may struggle with the baggage of being the ‘continuity candidate’. He’s been in Cabinet ever since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. First as the Minister responsible for delivering the Olympics, then as the wider Minister responsible for Culture, before taking on the heavy weight briefs of Minister of Health and then replacing Boris Johnson himself as Foreign Secretary.
Being in the Cabinet has meant Hunt supporting the withdrawal agreement that Theresa May managed to secure. Johnson of course resigned on the basis of it but would later vote for it in one of its chapters of Parliamentary failure. This has led some to describe Hunt as ‘May in a suit’ and beyond his own background as an entrepreneur it’s hard to see how he can bring parts of the Conservative with him that May couldn’t on any future Brexit vote.
Hunt has, however, managed to bring some heavyweight backers behind him from the Cabinet who sit on both sides of the debate, including Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt from the Leave side and Amber Rudd from the remain side. He’s styling himself as the more serious candidate for more serious times and his campaign hashtag is #HasToBeHunt.
Whilst he became quite toxic when in charge of the Health Brief during a battle with junior doctors over pay and conditions, he reflects that he has learnt from the episode and is now a far better communicator. During his time at Health he famously had lists on his wall of all the specifics that were going wrong in hospitals and styles himself as a details man.
As Foreign Secretary Hunt was the first Western leader to visit Yemen since the conflict began and is credited with moving peace talks along, he also picked up a focus on media freedoms and appointed a new human rights champion in Geneva.
The richest member of the current cabinet who can claim a distant relationship to Elizabeth II, Hunt starts well off the leader Johnson in the polls and has already attempted to describe himself as more of an insurgent candidate, challenging Johnson to additional media debates and adopting failed candidate Rory Stewart’s more relaxed and outgoing social media style. Yet as everyone knows Hunt’s audience is really the 130-160,000 members of the Conservative party who will be voting over the coming weeks, not the public at large.
This puts him in a tough position with half an eye on the leadership itself and half on what role he could secure in a Johnson-led administration. Keeping the Foreign Secretary brief would secure his political stature but isolate him from the key Brexit issue of the day.
Hunt can reflect on what is fast becoming one of the narratives of the campaign, that ‘only Johnson can defeat Johnson’. Indeed following a domestic incident at the flat he shares with his girlfriend, the headlines around Johnson have been polarised around his private life, not quite what the front-runner could have expected.
In terms of new policies, with Brexit and a hung-parliament, Hunt has kept largely quiet about what he would do beyond Brexit. He has promised a cut in corporation tax but has perhaps sensibly remained laser focused in on the single issue that could quickly define or end any premiership he is able to secure.
One newspaper columnist described Hunt as having an ‘airline steward’ demeanour and the contrast with the more colourful and less predictable Johnson couldn’t be more stark. Yet it is predictability and a low profile that Johnson will be seeking over the next few weeks as he looks to protect his lead. Hunt, by contrast will be forced out of his natural comfort zone in order to land blows on the favourite.
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