Could Jeremy Hunt be the next Tory leader?
Published by The i paper (18th December, 2017)
As we end another tumultuous year in our island history, Theresa May remains in Downing Street. She says she is ‘proving the doubters wrong’ on Brexit, which is sadly not true. But her limpet-like adherence in sticking to her job is remarkable, especially given the incredible ineptitude displayed in throwing away her party’s majority after that dismal election campaign. Now she clings to the keys of No 10 like an unwanted lodger, her pointless premiership largely defined by her survival skills as she staggers through the post-referendum mess.
On the left, Labour hopes it can continue dissembling over Brexit long enough for her fractious forces to collapse as the complexities of European Union departure unravel. The surge of Jeremy Corbyn is another of the year’s defining political stories, feted by younger voters as he surfed waves of anger over austerity, inequality and low wages. Yet if May’s tragic tenure ends abruptly might she be replaced by a rather different Jeremy: a shiny-faced, slick and successful entrepreneur rather than the bearded socialist bogeyman?
I am referring to Jeremy Hunt. This idea might once have caused mirth. Indeed, it did so in some quarters when I suggested three years ago that the Health Secretary might succeed my former boss David Cameron. He was, after all, a poor Culture Secretary who was then ‘rewarded’ with the toughest Cabinet job for a Tory politician, since when he has performed the usual endless firefighting that goes with responsibility for Britain’s most sacrosanct institution. Yet times change. And increasingly, Hunt looks a real contender for the top job.
For a start, look at his rivals. Boris Johnson bumbles round the planet, a flailing Foreign Secretary who shrinks daily in office and is detested by many for ceaseless manoeuvring. A character who believes he is Churchillian but looks increasingly Lilliputian. He fears eclipse on the reactionary right by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is popular with a certain type of Tory activist but would be a disastrous choice for a party already retreating from the centre and alienating younger voters. Other key Brexiteers such as David Davis, Michael Gove and especially Priti Patel look like damaged goods for differing reasons.
On the party’s sensible wing Amber Rudd remains a contender, while the charismatic Ruth Davidson, the most obvious choice to salvage her shattered party, remains in Scotland. There is rational desire among many younger MPs to skip a generation and clear out the entire old guard at the top. But suddenly Hunt seems to be stepping into the fray, despite denials he seeks the top job and effusive public support for May, with reports that he is sounding out friends and testing the idea with Tory donors.
Note his sudden makeover from Cameron-style moderniser into born-again Brexiteer, claiming the European Union’s post-referendum arrogance turned him into a Leave supporter. Now there are reports he sides with Johnson and Gove in Cabinet. This shift is slightly implausible given his liberal stance on other issues, especially immigration, and rather depressing to witness. But it is possibly smart politics in preparing for a leadership pitch, especially as the limitations of nationalist rivals are cruelly exposed and in a party that has seen many Ukip supporters return to the fold.
Then came Hunt’s emergence as a social media activist, suddenly jousting with left-wing actors and columnists on Twitter over his stewardship of the health service, hosting Facebook live chats in face of hostility and even starting a fight with the eminent scientist Stephen Hawking over statistics. It is good to see such public engagement from a senior politician, especially from a Tory daring to defend the party’s record on health. It also raises his profile dramatically while demonstrating that, like Davidson, he is comfortable with the modern language of politics exploited so ably by Corbyn’s team.
Is it coincidence that this man who made a fortune building his own firm before surviving almost as long as Aneurin Bevan overseeing the health service has also started talking about the crucial importance of good leadership? Last month he wrote about Colchester NHS Foundation Trust’s emergence from special measures – ‘one of the most remarkable turnarounds the NHS has ever seen’ – and he put it all down to ‘the quality of leadership’. He may have been talking about an Essex hospital, but who could ignore comparisons with the limp-lettuce captaincy seen in the public sector’s top job?
Like many health secretaries, Hunt is far from popular. But his combination of confident management, emollient manner and impressive command of detail has more chance of uniting his side than Boris’s tired bluster, while he sits on a massive majority in his seat, unlike Rudd. After taking over a department damaged by bungled reform, he has worked diligently to win over medical staff despite the first strike by junior doctors in four decades, while rightly focusing on patient safety following a series of health scandals that exposed poor care for vulnerable groups. For all the endless furore over spending and opposition fury, satisfaction with NHS services remains higher than under New Labour.
After taking over a department damaged by bungled reform, he has worked diligently to win over medical staff despite the first strike by junior doctors in four decades, while rightly focusing on patient safety following a series of health scandals that exposed poor care for vulnerable groups. For all the endless furore over spending and opposition fury, satisfaction with NHS services remains higher than under New Labour.