Jeremy Hunt shows the depressing state of the Conservative Party

Published by The Washington Post (17th July, 2019)

British Prime Minister Theresa May is a diminished figure after three years in Downing Street, during which she threw away the Conservatives’ majority with a dismal election campaign and failed to follow through on promises to deliver Brexit. With her departure imminent, it is easy to forget that when she became prime minister after the shock referendum vote to pull Britain out of the European Union, she felt confident enough to sweep aside several leading figures associated with her predecessor, David Cameron.

Jeremy Hunt, the affable health secretary seen as a key member of Cameron’s liberal wing, was among those anticipating dismissal. Initial reports said he had been sacked. But he allegedly refused to budge and persuaded his new boss to retain him in his post. The incident showed a glimpse of the steel hidden beneath his smooth surface that has now taken him to the final round of Conservatives’ voting for a new prime minister.

Hunt went on to become the longest-serving holder of the health post since the creation of the sanctified National Health Service in 1948, rightly focusing on patient safety after a series of deadly scandals. To achieve this record — revealing another steely glint — was a notable success for a Tory politician, given public skepticism over the Conservatives’ commitment to state health care and a bitter strike by junior NHS doctors in 2016 over a new contract.

Now Hunt is foreign secretary and locked in the toughest fight of his political career — battling to defeat Boris Johnson, a leader of the Brexit campaign, to succeed the woman who once sought to sack him. The buffoonish Johnson is wildly popular with party activists who are picking the new prime minister (the result will be announced July 23) and so confident of victory that it is widely assumed at Westminster he ‘lent’ votes to ensure Hunt was his opponent when Tory members of Parliament selected the final two candidates in the leadership contest.

Johnson remains the favorite despite a campaign that revealed his alarming lack of attention to detail and reminders about his chaotic private life. Even though Hunt has been written off for his bland, managerial style amid taunts from foes that he is ‘Theresa in trousers’, he has shown typical tenacity. He left scars on his rival with energetic attacks on Johnson’s reluctance to face him in debate or to defend British ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch before his resignation under fire from President Trump over the contents of leaked diplomatic memos.

Hunt is calm, slick and gently spoken, but he is also less dull than his detractors claim. An entrepreneur who made millions in publishing after failed efforts to export beloved British marmalade, he is fluent in Japanese, married to a Chinese woman, Lucia Guo, and likes lambada dancing. Although quietly religious, he was a passionate supporter of legalizing same-sex marriage in 2014.

He is also more ambitious than might be expected from an admiral’s son whose rise has seemed almost effortless since he was head boy at a top private boarding school. His first cabinet job was the task of overseeing the 2012 London Olympics as culture secretary, where he became embroiled in a storm over links to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire during the inquiry into tabloid phone-hacking that he was fortunate to survive.

Now he stands just one step from the famous black door on Downing Street. But like everything in British politics today, this contest is overshadowed by the deadlocked efforts to leave the E.U. — and Hunt backed Remain, which puts him at odds with most of his party’s activists. He rapidly became a Brexiteer after the referendum, but the flip-flop left him viewed with suspicion among allies on the liberal wing while failing to convince the right that he is a true believer.

Hunt, who has looked comfortable as foreign minister since Johnson’s resignation from the post last year, presents himself as the smart choice, a realist who will deliver Brexit without risking a general election that might let in a hard-left Labour Party. But that doesn’t seem to matter to a party obsessed by Brexit, even to the point of possible self-immolation as it drives away younger, moderate and ethnic-minority voters.

Ultimately, Hunt shows the depressing state of his party as he performs political gymnastics to win over the largely older, white, male Conservative Party activists who will pick Britain’s next prime minister. Here is a successful businessman and liberal-minded minister who has lately backed the return of fox hunting, provoked European fury by comparing the E.U. to the Soviet Union and said he would drive through a ‘no deal’ Brexit Brexit despite the economic risks. His campaign looks unlikely to save Britain from a tinpot Trump. But it serves to underline how the nasty virus of populism has driven the Conservative Party into such a dark place.

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