Jeremy Hunt, future Conservative Party Chief Boy
Boris Johnson once said his favorite movie scene was the “multiple retaliatory murders at the end of The Godfather”. It didn’t take long this week for the Prime Minister to take revenge on his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt.
Mild-mannered Hunt, who ran against Johnson in 2019, is still eyeing Number 10 and this week urged fellow Tory MPs to rise up against Johnson because the party was ‘not giving the British people the leadership they he deserves”.
The prime minister survived a subsequent no-confidence vote by 211 votes to 148 on Monday, but was seriously injured. Hunt, a former foreign secretary, would be the “anti-Boris”: managerial, perfectly suited, a little lackluster.
Some in Johnson’s circle have wondered if the Prime Minister might try to hold his enemy close, perhaps offering Hunt the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer. But most laughed at the idea: it’s not Johnson’s style.
Instead, Hunt was summarily told that Johnson’s government had approved oil drilling in his bucolic south-west Surrey constituency, a move that left the environmentalist sputtering: “Ridiculous”.
The prospect of the village of Dunsfold becoming a minor county of Dallas has caused local apoplexy and is a giveaway for Hunt’s challengers for the seat. This is unlikely to bother Johnson.
Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt, 55, has been following Johnson for several years, convinced that at some point Tory MPs will tire of the Prime Minister’s chaotic style. Hunt would be the man to pick up the pieces.
But some wonder if he wants the top job enough. Colleagues urged him to campaign more aggressively: “In politics, power is not given, it is taken,” says an ally.
After Monday’s coup narrowly failed, Hunt kept his head down. “Jeremy thinks the party will make its own decision without needing any help to do so,” one supporter said. “Jeremy says he’s not a natural destabilizer and probably wouldn’t do it very well if he tried.”
The son of a senior Royal Navy admiral and brought up in a picturesque Surrey village, Hunt has classic credentials: a prefect at the beloved Charterhouse School, followed by a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. .
He became an entrepreneur and taught English in Japan for two years; his early business ventures included an unsuccessful attempt to export marmalade to the country. His wife, Lucia Guo, is Chinese, although he made a “terrible” blunder during his first visit to Beijing as foreign minister, he described her as “Japanese”. The couple have a son and two daughters.
Eventually, he set up Hotcourses – which runs education registration websites around the world – in the 1990s. He met Guo at a Hotcourses event at the University of Warwick and when the company eventually sold in 2017, it earned £14million.
Elected in 2005, he fits perfectly into the mold of David Cameron’s new conservative party. Economically right – an ally says Hunt is “a real Thatcherite” – he was socially liberal and embraced green issues.
He became culture secretary in Cameron’s first cabinet in 2010, overseeing the 2012 London Olympics, before rising to the post of director of Britain’s health services in a time of austerity. It was a tall political challenge, but he became Britain’s longest-serving health secretary. Along the way, he’s met enemies in the NHS – not least after deciding to change doctors’ contracts to address high weekend death rates.
Nadine Dorries, culture secretary and Johnson loyalist, claimed this week that Hunt had failed to prepare the NHS for Covid and when the virus hit he advocated strict Chinese-style lockdown measures. “Your handling of the pandemic would have been a disaster,” she said. Since leaving cabinet, his role as chairman of the Commons Health Committee has given him a continued voice on the NHS issues that still concern him.
Hunt campaigned to stay in the 2016 EU referendum but then said, somewhat implausibly, a year later that he thought Brexit was a good idea after all, after witnessing the “arrogance” of the European Commission in the exit negotiations.
It was a clear sign that he was preparing for a leadership race where being pro-Brexit is now essential. After becoming Foreign Secretary in 2018 under Theresa May – replacing Johnson, who stormed to May’s proposed Brexit deal – he had the perfect platform.
May’s resignation a year later saw Hunt go up against Johnson to become prime minister. When husting with party members, his slick technocratic style contrasted with Johnson’s erratic populism.
But there was a problem. “Every night you would come back thinking Jeremy had won the debate, but the next morning people wouldn’t remember anything he said,” one figure in his leadership campaign admitted. In the end, Johnson won a decisive victory.
Johnson offered the defeated Hunt a position in his cabinet as Secretary of Defense, a demotion. Hunt refused. “He thought the whole government would collapse and he might step in and say ‘I told you so,'” an ally said. Others were furious. “Leading the army, navy and air force is never a job you turn down, especially not in the Conservative Party,” said a former cabinet minister.
Fans say Hunt is right to avoid campaigning for a job when there are no vacancies, but behind the calm and polite exterior is an ambitious man. “He’s got an inner steel, he’s tough,” said one.
Some Tories, particularly those representing seats in the north of England that Johnson won in the 2019 election, believe the very southern hunt would be an electoral handicap. “It would be a disaster,” says a Conservative MP from the North. “He can’t communicate with my constituents.”
But Andrew Mitchell, former Tory chief whip, said Hunt would eventually prevail because Tory MPs want three things in a new leader: ‘Someone untainted by Boris, someone with experience significant government and someone who is clearly moral.”