Hunt is the best hope for the Tories

Published by The i paper (17th October, 2022)

Archie Norman is one of Britain’s most distinguished corporate leaders who spent almost four decades running top firms in banking, retail and media before taking the chair at Marks & Spencer. He endured a few years in Parliament, but tellingly quit his Kent seat, frustrated by the lack of teamwork to solve problems in politics. Once, he told me of a key lesson he had learnt in business: to sack someone quickly when making a hiring blunder, even in their first few days, since it is kinder for all concerned to rectify a mistake quickly. Recruitment continues into the job, he argues, since it is only once a person is in post that you see strengths and weaknesses.

I thought of his advice as I watched Liz Truss floundering in that toe-curling press conference on Friday after the shafting of her Chancellor and fifth major U-turn. In eight tortuous minutes, she demonstrated how her ambition has taken her beyond her abilities, her core arguments have collapsed and that she is not up to the job of prime minister.

This was her chance to reset the Government, take responsibility for disastrous failures, show voters she understands their cost of living concerns and persuade backbenchers she has a strategy for recovery in the polls. Instead, she was bland and robotic – unable to communicate, devoid of contrition and bereft of the slightest empathy as she chanted her gratingly-banal clichés about growth.

Clearly, this dud appointment needs to be rectified fast rather than dragging out the pain, although such a move makes both Britain and the Tories look ridiculous with a fifth prime minister in six years. After a promising first PMQs, it has been downhill all the way for Truss.

As I argued two weeks ago, this mess is the consequence of a party captured by deluded fanatics and opportunists who inflicted a deceitful Brexit idea on the nation, then ducked any responsibility for the inevitable consequences. The tax cuts proposed by Truss tipped us all over the cliff edge – but only after six years that saw these selfish charlatans shred the country’s economic and political credibility. Britain has been burnt on the bonfire of their wretched obsession.

There should be a general election, but that is unlikely since it would be suicidal for the ruling party. So the fractious Tory tribes, still trapped by their ridiculous pretence that Brexit is a good idea, must find another leader. After three atrocious choices, pandering to the prejudices of their shrinking membership, they need to get it right – whether for the sake of a country they shamelessly betrayed or simply to save themselves from electoral wipeout.

So let us start by discounting the absurd idea of bringing back Boris Johnson, the self-serving architect of so many of our problems. He is morally bankrupt, deceitful, divisive and, by the end of his time in office, had become politically toxic, due to his glaring character flaws.

There is talk at Westminster of a plot to impose Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt in a hasty coronation. This makes sense on the surface if they can agree a pact. Sunak’s repeated warning in the leadership campaign that Truss’s plan to slash tax while driving up debt was a “fair-tale” fiscal strategy has been proved horribly correct at huge cost to the nation. Both are empathetic politicians who live in the real world. Both might steer the party back towards the centre, despite being Brexiteers. And both would be better than the bloodless and broken Truss.

Yet both present risk when Britain craves good government and stability. Sunak is smart and usually sensible. His stature has surged since Truss’s catastrophic mini-budget. Yet he fought a poor leadership campaign, raising issues over his political skills. And questions remain over why he clung to a United States Green Card for six years as an MP, even as Chancellor, and his wealthy wife’s use of non-domicile tax status – potential landmines for a leader confronting serious economic crisis. Mordaunt performed ably leading the King’s accession ceremony and has shown political cunning. Yet she is untested in high office, prompting fears that she might be exposed just as brutally as her predecessors if handed the premiership.

There are suggestions again of Ben Wallace leveraging his popularity into Downing Street, although he is also largely untested, despite an undoubtedly effective time at defence. Yet perhaps Truss has inadvertently empowered her own successor in reviving the leadership chances of Jeremy Hunt.

He seems, after all, to have already taken over the Government by setting its new course while showing the ability to communicate effectively – an attribute so sorely missing from her government. He has served in the foreign office. He survived six years at health, a tough task for a Tory, where he focused rightly on patient safety, faced down medical unions and protected budgets amid austerity. He admitted subsequently to failures on social care, which we must hope he resolves now back in power.

Hunt is an emollient character who built a successful business before politics. At health, he took over a department damaged by cack-handled reforms and rapidly proved a safe pair of hands. He has made subsequent mistakes, trying too hard to win support on Brexit and tax cuts from a party infected by populism. And he claims his leadership ambitions have been “clinically excised”, although few are convinced. One thing is clear: his party urgently needs to restore competence and trust in both Britain and their badly-listing government.

This means firing Truss – and fast, rather than prolonging the agonies of this botched appointment in such turbulent times. If Hunt stepped up to the premiership and governed true to himself, he might just stand a chance of salving some of the wounds ripped open by the Tories – and perhaps even of blunting the looming electoral disaster that deservedly confronts his party.

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