The dark horse candidate to succeed Cameron

Published in The Independent (February 19th, 2014)

Slowly but surely, discreet campaigns to succeed David Cameron as Tory party leader are slipping through the gears. There is little loyalty amid the ambitions of Westminster. But even the prime minister’s closest allies recognise he has three big hurdles to jump in the next three years, with the European elections in May, the general election next year and the European referendum in 2017. They present a formidable challenge for the leader of a party that has never totally warmed to him.

Much of the Westminster chatter focuses on three people: George Osborne, the chancellor now hailed as architect of economic recovery, whose octopus-like tentacles extend through the party ranks; Theresa May, the enigmatic home secretary whose classic conservatism with a modern twist has stealthily won admirers; and Boris Johnson, the popular London mayor seen by some Tories as their saviour.

One other name is increasingly being mentioned. Curiously, this is a man who two years ago was ‘toast’ in the words of one Labour attack dog, struggling to cling on to his job as culture secretary amid the furore over his links to Murdoch’s media empire. “He’ll be lucky to get elected to the culture, media and sport select committee when this is over, let alone 10 Downing Street,” said Tom Watson, scenting blood in the water.

Yet Jeremy Hunt survived his wounds – and was then, to many people’s astonishment, promoted to health secretary. This was all the more surprising given that he seemed so lacklustre at the ministry of fun, despite overseeing Olympic success alongside severe job cuts in his department. Yet only 17 months later he has salvaged his high-flying reputation in possibly the trickiest post for a Tory politician.

Hunt took over a department damaged by cack-handed reforms of his predecessor, which antagonised doctors and nurses while proving a political disaster for his party. He placed himself as patients’ champion in the wake of scandals that exposed shameful care in the sanctified National Health Service, pledging to use tough inspections, transparency and patient power to drive out shortcomings. It has proved effective politics, especially against a Labour opposite number who failed to tackle shoddy practices while in office.

 The health secretary’s tactics are modelled unashamedly on those pursued by Michael Gove at education, but while similarly resolute he is a less confrontational character than his cabinet colleague. Hunt rightly talks of vulnerable patients being betrayed, but pours praise on the NHS and its staff. And there is no denying his good fortune in avoiding the much-anticipated winter crisis in overburdened A&E wards.

Hunt has always been held in highest regard by Downing Street, although I was baffled by high praise for his skills behind the scenes during his time at culture. “He’s energetic and really cares,” one aide told me. “Plus he can pick up a brief, dissect it, master it and deliver results better than any other minister.” Increasingly he is being sent out to fight for the government, as on the floods – and seems a more confident media performer, having lost the startled rabbit look he wore during his Leveson nightmare.

So could he be party leader? Attempting to make such predictions are a futile game. Just think of John Moore, another health supremo once tipped as Thatcher’s successor. And Hunt lacks the political machinery being put in place by rivals. Yet both main parties are headed by people seen as outsiders at the start of their party leadership contests, let alone in the years beforehand when they were little-known.

Seen as a prominent moderniser, Hunt was a strong supporter of gay marriage, although a church attender, and opposes tough immigration restrictions. Yet he claims to be a passionate Thatcherite and would, says one ally, be surprisingly firm on benefits and bureaucracy. Despite his posh background as the privately educated son of an admiral, he has a decent – and outward-looking – backstory with his Chinese wife, fluent Japanese, love of lambada and success in building an educational publishing business employing 200 people.

Shortly before the last general election, Hunt, quizzed on his political ambitions by the ConservativeHome website, replied that potential leaders should be judged on their performance in office and ability to deliver real change in a tough environment. Two years ago, the idea of his leadership bid would have provoked little more than hollow laughter under his own criteria. Now he could just emerge as the dark horse candidate.

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