It is a remarkable comeback. Jeremy Hunt was defeated by Boris Johnson for the Conservative party leadership in 2019. This year he could not even scrape up enough support from fellow MPs to make him a contender in the contest won by Liz Truss. Five months later, she is out and he is the undisputed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, at the very least, the second most powerful politician in the country.
Hunt has got the job of restoring political and economic stability, at least until the next general election. He did so with aplomb at the despatch box in his Autumn Statement. Hunt didn’t sugar the pill: he put up taxes, while handing a timebomb of delayed spending cuts to the next government, which may well be Labour. Yet it didn’t quite do the trick, Conservative party reaction was sullen. Jacob Rees Mogg wished he could have had a Conservative Budget while the Tory’s traditional boosters in the media lamented the misery to come.
Polite, sleek and self-disciplined, Jeremy Hunt remains a political enigma. The remainer and “last Cameroon”, he has shouldered the burden of the Conservative Party’s Brexit-defined twelve years in power and is getting little thanks for it.
No more Etonians perhaps, although the Tory talent pool hasn’t expanded very far. Britain is now ruled over by two men who were head boys of major public schools (Winchester for Sunak, Charterhouse for Hunt) who both went on to study PPE at Oxford.
Hunt is the senior member but the junior partner of the latest oligarchy. He is 56 years old, to Sunak’s 44. He has been a member of parliament since 2005, when he took over Virginia Bottomley’s seat in Surrey. He served as a cabinet minister for nine straight years, under David Cameron and Theresa May: at DCMS during the London 2012 Olympics, the longest serving Health Secretary and then stepping into Boris Johnson’s shoes at the Foreign Office.
In his ministerial career prior to the Treasury he managed to keep the lid on his departments with only minor mishaps. As the phone hacking scandal exploded a close relationship with a News Corporation executive was revealed; they had become chums after meeting as fellow expectant fathers in the maternity hospital. Adam Smith, one of Hunt’s advisors resigned.
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At Health, he outlasted the challenge from an extended junior doctor’s dispute. As a young man, he authored a pamphlet calling for the dismantling of the NHS which he later disowned. Since leaving government in 2019, he has rethought his views as chair of the Health Select committee and produced a book Zero: Eliminating Unnecessary Deaths in a Post-Pandemic NHS. His arch attempt to joke that he intended to take advice from his previous self fell flat in the Commons, although it was no surprise given his background that he claimed to be doing his best to protect schools and the NHS in his Autumn statement.
After Brexit, he switched to back the majority will of the people but overreached as Foreign Secretary when he tried to tickle the fancy of the Conservative Party Conference by comparing the EU to the USSR and wrongly ascribed Slovenia to the old Soviet block rather than former Yugoslavia. In another celebrated gaffe, he described his Chinese wife as “Japanese”.
Before Sunak joined, Hunt was sometimes called the richest member of the cabinet. His estimated worth of £14 million is based on his half share of the language tuition company Hotcourses, sold in 2009. His success came after a number of other failed efforts at entrepreneurship.
He met his wife Lucia Guo through Hotcourses when she was recruiting Chinese students at Warwick University. Eleven years younger than her husband, the couple have three children: Jack, Anna and Eleanor. Somewhat vacuously, on his post-announcement visit to another school, Hunt informed the class “my daughter is at primary school”.
The Hunts are bringing up their children bilingually and Jeremy speaks fondly of their Chinese grandparents in Xi’an province. These circumstances make him “unacceptable” as a potential Prime Minister, according to one former head of a British intelligence service, who feared that the Hunts could be subject to duress through their China based family.
From September 2021, Mrs Hunt presented a feature “Signature Flowers of China” on China Hour, available on a Sky channel and YouTube. The programme, made by the China International TV Corporation, aims to showcase Chinese culture to an international audience. It was first launched after Mr Hunt led a delegation to China which agreed a UK-Media TV production treaty. There is absolutely no evidence to support the top spook’s fears that Hunt could become a kind of “Manchurian candidate”.
Jeremy Hunt owes his Chancellorship to Liz Truss, not Rishi Sunak. It remains a mystery why she reached out to him a month ago. Kwarteng looked like a goner, but few saw Hunt coming as his replacement. Truss and Hunt knew each other well as cabinet colleagues but, unlike her, he hastened Boris Johnson’s exit, complaining of “duplicity” and “destabilizing the party” which was “no longer trusted”. Hunt backed Sunak from the start of this summer’s leadership battle. Truss commented that she and Hunt both believed in a “high growth, low tax economy” which does not mean much since these words are the Conservative version of motherhood and apple pie. She most likely went for him because he was the most plausible member of a wing of the party which she was trying to stop turning against her and/or because she thought he was the best person for the job in the national interest.
Hunt did not copy Liz Truss’s dramatic volte face from remainer to hardline Brexiteer. Immediately after the referendum, he argued that it was in the UK’s vital interest to remain in the single market, only to change his mind subsequently. His developing views on Europe will be closely watched during his time at the Treasury. He was challenged repeatedly in his post-statement interviews on Friday. He concedes that the UK urgently needs open trading arrangements with its “nearest neighbour” but opposes single market membership on the grounds that reinstating freedom of movement would result in increased immigration. Intriguingly, he is less bothered on the theological issue of ECJ jurisdiction, which is central to the Irish protocol row.
Hunt is a sociable individual often seen in a number of social circles. A trim cyclist and runner, he is said to be an enthusiastic dancer, with his own sprung dancefloor in one of his homes. His networking skills have cultivated friendships with Henry Kissinger and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, amongst others. He once approached Sky News’ emphatically independent Kay Burley to be his media chief, unsuccessfully.
Hunt was a university contemporary of Cameron and Johnson. Unsurprisingly, his strongest political links are to others from the pre-Brexit government. Amber Rudd is a friend. He consulted George Osborne before the Autumn Statement and has brought in Osborne’s aide Rupert Harrison as an advisor. To many, “the very difficult times ahead” which the Chancellor predicts are a re-run of the austerity era – grimly appropriate since living standards are predicted to plummet to that level as well.
Jeremy Hunt is a power in the land once again, yet friends reckon he has nobly caught a hospital pass for the team which will not set him on a path to greater glory.
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