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UK Politics

Jeremy Hunt: Faster, higher, stronger – and cheaper

The new Culture Secretary has a difficult juggling act as he tries to keep the Olympics on budget while looking for huge cuts elsewhere. Matt Chorley meets Jeremy Hunt

Few artists craving credibility would seek out the endorsement of a politician, aside perhaps from Ben Eine, who last week saw Barack Obama receive his work as a gift for the walls of the White House.

Like it or not, five of Britain's best contemporary artists, including Grayson Perry and Mark Wallinger, are this weekend given the thumbs up by Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, who has just taken delivery of their work to hang in his ministerial office.

Settling into a comparatively under-decorated meeting room in Parliament, Mr Hunt does not play down the significance of his choices. "The artwork the Culture Secretary chooses is considered to be very significant, perhaps second only in significance to that chosen by the Prime Minister."

The details remained a closely guarded secret until the "wonderful pieces" had been installed. The art world, no doubt, held its breath. So, there is an etching by Perry, entitled Map of Nowhere, which highlights global concerns and concepts – craftsmanship, suicide bombers, curiosity – represented on the artist's body, which is also a map of the globe. Two works by Wallinger from his Brown's series feature the livery colours worn by jockeys on horses owned by namesakes of the ex-PM. A screen print by Sonia Boyce is a brightly coloured list of black female singers from jazz vocalist Elisabeth Welch to Lisa Maffia.

The collection is completed by a Runa Islam photograph and a miniature version of Yinka Shonibare's HMS Victory in a bottle which currently stands on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, just "a stone's throw" from Mr Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "I chose to showcase some of the very best contemporary British artists. I do think we have an extraordinary contemporary arts scene," he says.

At a time of eye-watering spending cuts – including the threat of losing up to 40 per cent of his department's funding – one might think the minister had bigger things to consider.

While his recent utterances on the BBC licence fee and the future of sporting events on TV have made waves, the items in his ministerial in-tray do not come much bigger than the Olympics. He hopes to be still in charge when the opening ceremony is staged at the Olympic Stadium in east London. A series of events will be held on Tuesday to mark exactly two years before the circus arrives in town. Amid the talk of "inspiration" and "harnessing stardust", Mr Hunt admits "severe cuts" lie ahead. The Olympic budget must "bear its share of the burden" to prevent a public backlash against the £9bn bill at a time when the impact of public spending cuts will be felt hundreds of miles from the Olympic village.

Details will also be released for the first time on the disruption Londoners will face when roads are cleared for VIPs and athletes, while efforts are stepped up to push ticket sales and avoid empty seats in venues.

Much will be made of the venue building programme being on time and budget. Mr Hunt is frank about the scale of the challenge he faces. There is also growing concern about the legacy of the great sporting jamboree. "It is London hosting the Games but it is the whole country that's paying for them."

Key to his hopes of securing a lasting legacy will be an Olympics-style school sports contest, potentially involving all 24,000 primary and secondary schools in the country. The finals will be held in the Olympic Stadium in the months before the Games are staged.

Regardless of the coalition's talk of no longer micro-managing from Whitehall, Mr Hunt reveals he wants flags bearing the famous five rings "fluttering at schools up and down the country". This, despite negotiations with the International Olympic Committee over the use of the logo being as fraught as trying to persuade George Osborne to let him keep another billion or two.

Mr Hunt wants to challenge the notion that competition should be avoided to protect children who dread PE lessons. "I want to use the Olympics to banish the myth that competitive sport can damage children's self-esteem; that everyone has to win a prize. I want to use it to fly the flag for competitive sport as a way of actually teaching children to deal with setbacks, picking themselves up when they are down."

Significant investment by Labour in school sports failed to change this culture, he claims, with the number of children regularly playing competitive sport against other schools still at just one in five.

With money tight, the focus is on getting schoolchildren to play sports "because that's where the most shocking disappointments are". Funding could be a sticking point. Some will come from central government, with the culture and education departments contributing.

Questions will continue to be asked about spending billions on a one-off event, which will cost more than the VAT increase will raise in six months. Savings totalling £600m have already been found. Could the axe fall again?

"Absolutely. The Olympics budget is not ringfenced. At times when we are making difficult decisions in health, policing and transport, the Olympics has to bear its share of the pain." Supporters of the bid always argued that, as 2012 drew closer, public support would rise. They did not count on a backdrop of public services being hacked by spending cuts.

"We have to understand the public concern about the cuts that are happening ... but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will be a major privilege to have the biggest and best sporting event in the world right on our doorstep."

Indeed, the 43-year-old believes it is a "stroke of luck" that the huge building project – and its 30,000 jobs – has come "right at the time of the worst recession since the war". "It has the potential to be very much more significant for the whole country, given the depressed state of the economy right now."

With the axe already falling, opponents have been quick to accuse the coalition of turning its back on the sporting legacy. At mention of this, Mr Hunt becomes noticeably angry. "How dare Labour criticise those cuts when they left this government with £50bn of unallocated spending cuts? Who's to know that they wouldn't have made those cuts themselves? They are just being completely dishonest if they are prepared to criticise individual cuts without actually saying how they would make up the deficit that they themselves created."

The coalition would "like to do a lot more", but faces "severe restraint on resources". He would "love to have brand new swimming pools and sports centres in every school in the country" but blames Labour for leaving a "financial mess".

"It is going to be horrible; there's no question about it. We have to be honest with people, but also carry people with us to make these very difficult structural changes." This is easier to do when the cuts are hypothetical. Carrying the public mood will be harder when reality bites. "Yeah, it is going to be tough. That's why it's incredibly important that the language we use is extremely honest about the challenges that we face."

But he refuses to "single out" the arts for cuts because, indirectly, they account for some two million jobs. "Our cultural scene is one of the most thriving in the world. But we are spending beyond our means and the arts sector, like all sectors, has to recognise that painful times lie ahead."

His department is braced for the worst. It is unprotected and seen by some as a luxury. Mr Hunt has been told to model cuts of 25 per cent and 40 per cent. There is even talk of giving up the department's flagship HQ off Trafalgar Square and squatting with another ministry. He'll have to hope they give him enough wall space for all his artwork.

Curriculum vitae

1966 Born in Surrey, the son of naval officer Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, and Meriel. Attends Charterhouse school in Godalming, where he becomes head boy.

1988 Graduates from Magdalen College, Oxford with a first-class honours degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

1988 Joins Outram Cullinan and Co as a management consultant.

1990 Teaches English in Japan.

1991 Founds educational publishing business Hotcourses Ltd. Ceases being a paid director in 2006 but remains a shareholder.

2005 Elected in May as Conservative MP for South West Surrey. Seven months later is promoted to shadow minister for disabled people. Spends a year on the international development select committee.

2007 Joins Shadow Cabinet as shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Voted Britain's sexiest MP.

2010 Joins coalition government as Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. Within days becomes a father to Jack, his first child.