Since he was defeated by Boris Johnson in the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, Jeremy Hunt has had a quieter life as a backbench MP. He has campaigned for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from custody in Iran and has been an effective and interventionist chairman of the Health Select Committee, often calling out his own party over inadequacies in their response to the Covid crisis and NHS funding. But could he now be preparing for another shot at the top job?
Now that partygate looks increasingly likely to lead to a change of leader, Hunt has told the House magazine that: ‘I won’t say my ambition has completely vanished, but it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring.’
As the Prime Minister’s nemesis Dominic Cummings tweeted:
‘[This] is SW1 code for: leadership contest is imminent, sign up early if you want a seat in Cabinet, am on phone to donors and getting office set up, there has to be one non-Brexit nutter in last two’.
Hunt is one of the few high-profile members of the Tory party who could be said to have had ‘a good pandemic’. As a result, Hunt has largely dispelled the negative image he engendered when he was health secretary in the Cameron and May administrations. He is regarded as one of the few grown-up figures in the party and, crucially, has reassured traditional shire Conservatives that there is at least one ‘big beast’ on the backbenches who represents a form of One National Toryism – as opposed to the more Brexity variety espoused by Johnson and his cabinet.
In his interview with House, Hunt offered the Prime Minister some qualified support for his Brexit achievements and the vaccine roll-out (‘we have to give Boris great credit’), but nonetheless stated that ‘I think the issues around ‘partygate’ are substantive issues. They are important issues and we’re now waiting for the results of the independent inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened.’
So how would Hunt fare in a post-Johnson contest? His likely rivals would be Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, and he faces the dual disadvantage of being a ‘traditional’ white, upper-middle class public schoolboy and Oxford graduate (compared to Sunak and Truss’s more unorthodox backgrounds). He was also a committed Remainer. By comparison, Truss’s previous support for the Remain side has now been erased from history; she is now one of the government’s most enthusiastic born-again Brexiteers.
And yet, it’s not all bad news for Hunt. The former health secretary has an obvious appeal in constituencies such as Chesham and Amersham – lost to the Lib Dems last year – in that he can present himself as a professional, experienced politician who is ready to take the Conservative party out of its current reputational mire. Hunt is the type of politician who can re-establish something of the combination of economic sense and social liberalism of the Cameron era, if that is what the Tory party is interested in.
There are more twists ahead in the current administration’s travails, and Hunt would be foolish to set himself up as a Portillo figure, measuring up the curtains in 10 Downing Street before Johnson has been ousted from office. It remains unclear, too, whether there is much appetite for managerial party leaders after the departure of the flamboyant incumbent. But if the public are sick of endless drama and revelation, an unexciting but competent ‘safe pair of hands’ like Hunt may well become the next prime minister.
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