10 July 2018

Could Jeremy Hunt dance his way to the top job?


Jeremy Hunt disclosed, as a newly elected Conservative MP in 2005, that his hobby was dancing the lambada: “My lifetime’s ambition is to be on Strictly Come Dancing.”  Now that he has become Foreign Secretary it looks possible that his ultimate goal might one day be achieved. Or perhaps he could settle for being Prime Minister.

Certainly Hunt is a skilful and confident political operator. A good test is to scroll down a politician’s Twitter account. Some MPs are terrified of using it — and play safe by noting how much they “enjoy” attending worthy constituency events. Hunt can be more combative and takes on his critics.

He is also a survivor. Last month he became the longest serving Health Secretary we have ever had. He clocked up 2,135 days before finally departing yesterday. Earlier, when he was Culture Secretary, there was a row about relations with News Corporation during the BskyB bid and speculation that he would be sacked — but he was promoted.

Before he became an MP for Surrey South West — where he succeeded Virginia Bottomley in 2005 — I came across Hunt as a fellow activist in the Hammersmith Conservatives. I remember he hosted a fundraising event at his home for Sir Bernard Ingham. The one thing I remember about the evening was Hunt’s robust Euroscepticism. There was good-natured ribbing of those who took a different view — he seemed to regard the notion of being a fan of the European Union as absurd. I was mildly surprised when he ended up backing Remain in the referendum.

If Hunt were to become our next Prime Minister, he would be hit by the charges that Tory politicians are vulnerable to of being posh and rich. His father was Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt. Jeremy was the head boy at Charterhouse. But he has made his own money — and rather a lot of it. A publishing business he set up, Hotcourses, made him £14 million when he sold his shares last year. I don’t think this wealth is an insurmountable problem for Hunt to overcome.

After all, his potential leadership rival, Boris Johnson, is more obviously posh. But neither Hunt nor Johnson come across as snobbish or aloof. In Hunt’s case he has a positive fetish for walking in other people’s shoes to find out what their lives are like. Before being elected in Surrey South West he spent a week as a classroom assistant in a local primary school. He did night shifts with the police. He spent a day as a dustman — getting up at 6am and collecting recycling sacks. He spent a day as a street cleaner in the pouring rain.

As Health Secretary he took a similar approach. For instance when he visited East Surrey Hospital he did a shift as a healthcare assistant on Capel ward. Then had a meeting with the chief executive and assorted high ups. “I like taking part in duties when I visit hospitals,” he said.

Hunt’s wife, Lucia Guo, is Chinese. “Nobody needs to remind me that we need to compete with the Chinese,” he says. “I compete with them every day.” He lived in Japan for a time — and had a failed business venture trying to export marmalade to them.

What of Hunt’s politics? I would say he is more of a Conservative than Theresa May. The present Prime Minister has a vicar’s daughter devotion to public service. When she got involved in politics in the 1970s and 1980s she probably thought the Labour Party looked unattractive and so drifted into the Conservatives despite not having any terribly clear Conservative beliefs. Hunt’s grasp of the case for free enterprise and individual liberty is rather stronger.

By instinct he would be a reformer rather than be overly deferential to establishment interests. As Health Secretary he was more willing to attack the failings of the NHS than any of his predecessors. When a scandal takes place Hunt will say so – rather than try to excuse it or cover it up.

When he first became Health Secretary one of his first tasks was to read the report by Sir Robert Francis into the scandal at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital. Hunt was convinced of the need to champion patient safety even if this cause made him enemies.

How was it to be achieved? An important lesson that Hunt says he learnt in Japan was “never be afraid to copy”. So the approach of increasing transparency and accountability was copied from the education reforms. Thus we have Ofsted-style inspections introduced and new leadership teams being imposed on those rated as inadequate — just as with the hostile takeover of failing schools that have new heads and governing bodies as “sponsored academies”. Performance tables, established for schools in terms of exam grades and so forth, are now published for hospitals on a range of criteria.

In his new role, Hunt’s diplomatic skills will be tested. One indication of his persuasiveness is that until this week he has managed to resist being moved from Health Secretary. When summoned to Downing Street by David Cameron, or later by Theresa May, to be informed of his fate, he would answer back and persuade them to leave him in post. That would be even after the press had been briefed that he was out. Entire reshuffles would unravel as a result.

So Hunt is a formidable figure. Will he become Prime Minister? Part of the answer to that question depends on how Brexit works out — a factor beyond his control. Surely it will take place as scheduled on March 29 next year — cancelling or postponing it does not seem plausible. Let us also assume that Theresa May continues as PM until after that date and that a leadership contest takes place soon after that — whether she stands down or is challenged.

Hunt could be a unifying figure acceptable to Remainers and Leavers. But that will depend on the form that Brexit takes. If we have a “Brexit In Name Only” then there will be a strong demand from Conservatives for someone willing to “finish the job” — such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg. If on the other hand we end up with a “no deal” Brexit then Hunt would be rather better placed, putting himself forward as the man with the energy and ability to lead us through the new challenges.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and blogger.