Just like that old story
About the turtle and the hare,
When Dan crossed over the finish line
Old Shorty was waiting there.
Eddie Cochran, ‘Cut Across Shorty’ (1960)
If you’d told us this time last year that within twelve months Rishi Sunak would be prime minister, we probably would have believed you. Boris Johnson was already floundering and Sunak seemed the most plausible replacement.
On the other hand, if you’d told us in mid-July that Jeremy Hunt would be chancellor of the exchequer within three months, we’d have given it no credence at all. Out of office for two years, he’d just come last in the Conservative leadership election, beaten by such heavyweights as Tom Tugendhat, Suella Braverman and Nadhim Zahawi. Surely, this was the end of his front-bench aspirations.
Yet here we are. The improbable survivor is back in cabinet, serving under his fourth prime minister (he missed one out), chosen to steer the economy just as the country heads into recession. For years he’d been outpaced by his Oxford contemporaries David Cameron and Boris Johnson, but he’s still in the race and they’ve dropped out.
Jeremy Richard Strensham Hunt was born in November 1966 (a month after David Cameron). His grandfather was a brigadier in the Indian Army, his father an admiral in the Royal Navy. He went to Charterhouse school, where he was head boy (as opposed to Rishi Sunak, who was head boy at Winchester), and he got a first at Oxford in PPE. After university, there were stints in management and PR, before he was elected Conservative MP for South West Surrey, where Virginia Bottomley had stepped down.
All terribly predictable, of course, but there was a little more than that. He’d also spent time in Japan, teaching English and learning Japanese. He found it difficult to identify a good school to attend, and that gave him the idea for HotCourses, the firm he founded that published guides to international education. It was a successful venture and ensured that he arrived in Westminster financially secure.
Shortly after his election, Cameron became Conservative leader, and Hunt was very much on board with the new model party, aiming to mix competence with compassion. He was rewarded with instant promotion. Within six months of becoming an MP, he was shadow minister for disabled people, moving up to shadow secretary for culture, media and sport in 2007. He was being talked of as a rising star, even – in some quarters – as a future leader.
That wasn’t too far-fetched. He was absolutely on-message for the era of Plausible Young Men that Tony Blair had initiated. He was fluent and shiny on television and radio, and if some doubted how much substance there was behind the easy manner, that was very much in the spirit of the age. He was Cameron’s understudy for the role of the acceptable face of Conservatism.
Because he seemed so eminently nice. A Sky News poll saw him acclaimed Britain’s ‘most fanciable MP’ (Julie Kirkbride came second), and his boyish appeal was not harmed by reports that, with a personal fortune of £4.1 million, he was the third richest member of the shadow cabinet, behind Lord Strathclyde and Philip Hammond. His wife was Chinese and he spoke fluent Japanese (on occasion he got these two confused), he’d set up a charity to support the education of AIDS orphans in Africa, and he was said to be keen on dancing, particularly the lambada. His karaoke song of choice was Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds’. He was liberal enough that he wouldn’t disgrace a London dinner-party: he claimed his political hero was William Wilberforce, and he got on well with decent Labour folk (he spoke highly of Hilary Benn and Andy Burnham).
The election of the Coalition government in 2010 saw him installed as culture secretary. The high point was the 2012 Olympic Games in London (once the army had been drafted in to deal with the free-market failures of G4S). The low point was giving the impression that he was a cheer-leader for Rupert Murdoch, something that became particularly sensitive when News Corp tried to take control of BSkyB. Criticism of his conduct during that saga – texting with James Murdoch, not referring the bid to the monopolies commission – saw deeply uncomfortable appearances in 2012, first in the House of Commons and then in front of the Leveson inquiry. It was widely assumed that he was going to get sacked; at the very least, it seemed to end any hope of promotion.
Hunt wasn’t Cameron’s main problem, though. That was health secretary Andrew Lansley, whose proposals to reform the NHS were so unpopular that they had to be suspended for a time – ‘paused’ was the expression used – while they were hastily rewritten. The amended Health and Social Care Act passed in 2012, but came at a tremendous political cost to the government. Polls suggested that only George Osborne was more unpopular than Lansley.
Seeking to distance two ministers from their controversies, without upsetting anyone too much, Cameron moved Lansley to the anonymity of leader of the House and replaced him with Hunt. Rewarded for failure, Hunt thus began the longest tenure anyone has ever served as health secretary.
He was disliked, of course. Every Tory health secretary is disliked; it comes with the job. Even Virginia Bottomley had been reviled back in the 1990s. By 2016 Hunt was the most unpopular politician in the country, blamed for provoking junior doctors into taking strike action. His bland features and slightly vacant smile were now seen as the embodiment of smirking Conservatism. In the words of Ben Bradshaw, his Labour predecessor as culture secretary: ‘He looks like he’s on Valium.’
Apart from that, he was chiefly known for the mispronunciation of his name. Back in 2010, on Radio 4’s Today, James Naughtie had become the first to call him ‘Jeremy Cunt’ on air, and others followed, including Victoria Derbyshire, Nicky Campbell, Justin Webb, Tom Rayner, Ellie Price, Claudia-Liza Arma and Carrie Gracie. There was a suspicion that it wasn’t always a slip of the tongue.
So unpopular was he that, come the 2016 Brexit Referendum, he wasn’t in the front line of the campaign, kept out of sight for fear of driving away support. He was a Remainer, of course, a supporter of Cameron’s negotiated deal. And that meant he was vulnerable when the result went the other way and the Great Reckoning came. Cameron and George Osborne fell on their swords, and the new prime minister, Theresa May, despatched a number of others: Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, Oliver Letwin.
Hunt had started the leadership election saying that he was thinking of running for the leadership himself, but he wisely abandoned that idea, instead backing May. Despite which, it was again generally assumed that, in the absence of Cameron’s patronage, he was on his way out. And again he survived, staying on at Health. ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,’ he tweeted gleefully. Some said that no one else was prepared to take on the job.
More charitably, it might have been that those who worked with him had a higher estimation of his abilities than did the public. Or perhaps it was his loyalty that appealed. Unlike many in May’s cabinet, he didn’t brief – let alone plot – against his leader. When Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary in July 2018, he was promoted to that job. He didn’t make much impact, but the new role helped smooth away memories of his time as health secretary – particularly since he’d been replaced by Matt Hancock, who everyone agreed was much more hate-worthy.
He had been sufficiently rehabilitated that when May was finally forced to step down in May 2019, he was able to mount a leadership campaign that was completely credible, even if it stood no chance of success. He was in second place throughout the five ballots of MPs, finally beating Michael Gove by 77 votes to 75 to be the challenger to Johnson. But he was cast as the plucky no-hoper who never came close to laying a glove on the People’s Champion, either in the parliamentary ranks or the wider party, beaten by a margin of two to one in the membership poll. Offered the job of defence secretary, he turned it down and returned to the back-benches that he’d so briefly occupied thirteen years earlier.
It could – probably should – have been the end. Come the 2019 general election, he could have stepped down honourably as an MP, possessor of an impressive c.v., still only 53 years old and with time to enter a new career.
But he stayed on, becoming chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee. And in that capacity, he had a very good Covid, constructively criticising aspects of government policy, particularly the seemingly slow response in the early days. Whether he’d been a good health secretary or not, he undoubtedly knew more about the NHS than anyone in the cabinet, and he used his experience effectively.
That should have given him a really solid base from which to launch another leadership bid when Johnson crashed and burned. Last time round, the Tories had needed someone to defeat Nigel Farage, and that clearly wasn’t Hunt. This time, though, they needed someone to steady the ship and calm things down after King Boris. Sunak was the front-runner, but Hunt was surely in with a decent shout.
It wasn’t to be. As recently as May 2022, he’d been the bookies’ joint-favourite with Liz Truss to succeed Johnson. But the following month, in a rare outbreak of disloyalty, he became the biggest name to vote no-confidence in the prime minister, and as a consequence alienated much of the party membership. Anyway, he’d never got round to the political business of building a following. So when it came to the leadership campaign, he attracted the votes of just eighteen of his colleagues. So desperate was he for support that he announced Esther McVey would be his deputy-prime minister. He also pledged to legalise fox-hunting, which didn’t seem a burning issue in 2022.
If it weren’t already clear, it was now undeniable: Hunt was yesterday’s man.
And then came the strange episode of Liz Truss’s premiership, which will be told to young Conservatives as a scary bedtime story for years to come. Kwasi Kwarteng spent 38 days as chancellor – just enough time to deliver his minibudget – before Truss decided to throw him overboard in a desperate and doomed attempt to keep her own job as captain of the Tory Titanic.
Who should replace him? The situation was catastrophic enough without having a full cabinet reshuffle. What was needed was someone with experience, clean hands and an ability to project dull conformity. And so the cry went out: Send for Jeremy Hunt. He became chancellor by default, and immediately executed a handbrake turn, the abrupt ruthlessness of which was belied by his weightless delivery.
Six days after his appointment, Truss gave up the ghost and announced her resignation. The disruption of having a third prime minister in two months was already so great that her replacement, Rishi Sunak, had no option but to keep Hunt in office.
What an extraordinary career it’s been. Without wishing to be unnecessarily rude, Hunt is not one of the giants of modern British politics, and yet he’s been in cabinet now for very nearly ten years, including terms in two of the great offices of state. Ever since David Cameron became leader in 2005, the Conservative Party has been trying to reinvent itself, wandering the highways and byways of politics in search of a new identity. And whichever way it has turned, there has always been a cheerful Jeremy Hunt waiting to greet it, wondering if he might be of any assistance.
The odd thing is that for someone who appears so amiable, he’s not actually liked very much. A YouGov survey this year found that among the public he didn’t make the top 30 most popular Conservative politicians, and a ConservativeHome poll of party members this month gave him a net satisfaction rating of -6.7 per cent, a long, long way behind the front-runners Ben Wallace (on +85.5 per cent), Kemi Badenoch (+71.2) and James Cleverly (+67.5). There’s no apparent demand for him, but there he is.
When he left Oxford, Hunt sent a note to his best friend, Mark Field, that ended with the words: ‘See you at Westminster.’ (In the event, Field got there before him, elected in 2001.) He was only twenty-one then, but the comment is as revealing as Cameron’s answer to why he wanted to be prime minister: ‘Because I think I’d be good at it.’ It’s not entitlement so much as expectation. As Labour MP Tony Wright said of Tony Blair: ‘The Big Idea is that there is no Big Idea.’
Like the other Plausible Young Men, Hunt is the modern incarnation of the imperial administrator. In an earlier era, he would have risen to be governor of a colony somewhere. (He would have suited a white uniform and pith helmet.) Ultimately, his craft is not politics, it’s running things.
And maybe he turned out to be better at running things than the others, which is why he’s survived so long. The likes of Cameron, Johnson and Osborne were all honing their skills in advertising, PR and the media, while he was launching a successful business of his own. They’re gone, he’s still with us.
It’s far from secure, of course. There are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead, not just with the economy but with the NHS and social care. Will he be able to escape blame as things slide into chaos? That long stint at Health may well come back to bite him.
Or possibly, just possibly, he may not yet have reached the summit of his career. His autumn statement was full of tax rises and spending cuts, but thus far he has got away with it, simply by virtue of not being Kwasi Kwarteng. Meanwhile, Sunak is taking most of the hits, on the economy, on immigration, on strikes. It seems absurd to suggest that the Tories may remove yet another prime minister, but then the Conservative Party has been no stranger to absurdity in recent years. In these strange times, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the cry ‘Send for Hunt’ may be heard again.
In any event, the remarkable return of Jeremy Hunt – the fourth chancellor of 2022 – deserves to be recognised. He is our Politician of the Year.