Profile: Service with a smile: David Hunt: Stephen Castle on the next Willie Whitelaw - or the latest in a long line of vanishing acts

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The Independent Online
DAVID HUNT spent his last hours as Secretary of State for Employment last Wednesday with John Monks, general secretary of the TUC. The subject? Disability in the workplace. One can almost hear the sharp intake of breath on the Tory right.

In a Cabinet where even Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine have sometimes tried to court the right, Mr Hunt stands out for his wetness. To the right, his frequent love-ins with union leaders were emblematic. Since 1979, the Tory approach to the unions has been to freeze them out. Yet earlier this month Mr Hunt dared to address a TUC conference and has said he would be 'delighted' to see the unions as 'key partners' in industry. He is, furthermore, an old associate of Peter (now Lord) Walker, the archetypal Tory wet, whom he consulted before backing Heseltine in the 1990 leadership election. In his memoirs, Lord Walker recorded that 'David sought my advice and flatteringly said he had followed it throughout his political career'. Mr Hunt had even followed his mentor to Wales as Secretary of State, running it, as one critic said, 'in a corporatist way'.

So what are we to make of his role in last Wednesday's reshuffle? He had been tipped as party chairman: his charm, his moderation, his mildness of manner, some thought, made him ideal to present the acceptable face of Toryism. Instead, he got Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the position previously held by the un-

fortunate William Waldegrave, carrying responsibility for the Citizen's Charter, a political death- trap if ever there was one.

But Downing Street - not to say Mr Hunt himself - was at pains to explain that the job involved much more than that. Mr Hunt would also chair five highly influential Cabinet committees. Though these would not include the powerful EDH (home affairs) and EDX (arbiter of public spending disputes), he would be a member of both. He would be the Prime Minister's 'progress chaser and enforcer', a chef de cabinet of a sort not previously seen in British politics.

'Potentially,' said one civil servant last week, 'he is an enormously powerful figure.' A Prime Ministerial aide said the job put him only just outside the top three political beasts: Clarke, Heseltine and Howard. Some suggest that his role could evolve into that of surrogate deputy prime minister, performing the same service for Mr Major as Willie Whitelaw performed for Margaret Thatcher. As she memorably said, 'every Prime Minister needs a Willie' and, since Chris Patten's 1992 defeat and departure to Hong Kong, John Major has notably lacked one.

But Mr Hunt could equally well sink without trace. And anybody expecting a powerful new left-of-centre force in the Government may be disappointed. Categorising Mr Hunt as a wet is over- simple. He thrived under Baroness Thatcher; his political allies include such standard-bearers of the right as Michael Forsyth; and he savaged Jacques Delors in one of the many rabble-rousing speeches at the 1993 party conference.

No ministerial career is without its contradictions. But consider the Commons vote on capital punishment on 21 February this year. Three Cabinet ministers voted for the return of the death penalty for the murder of police officers. Two of them, to nobody's great surprise, were the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, Ian Lang and John Redwood. The third was David James Fletcher Hunt.

HE WAS born in 1942 and raised in post-war Merseyside, where his father was a shipping agent. After schooling at Liverpool College, he studied for a time in Montpelier - to this day he is a Europhile. He read law at Bristol University; later, he trained as a solicitor.

In 1973, he married an intensive-care nurse - Paddy Orchard - with whom he has two sons and two daughters aged between 13 and 19. He is a semi-regular churchgoer and possibly a more regular attender ofbig sporting events, particularly if they involve Liverpool football club or the English test side; it will be a suprise if the new Chancellor of the Duchy is not at Lord's today.

By all acounts the Hunts lead a happy, normal family life in a roomy home in Pimlico. He is a devoted father. This does not mean, however, that he is beyond capitalising on family life. One colleague recalls seeing him at a whips' office Christmas party many years ago studiously steering two of his children into the on- coming path of Mrs Thatcher.

His ambition was apparent from the beginning: he held office in his university Conservative association and the Federation of Conservative students, and finally got the National Young Conservative chairmanship. The left of the party had already claimed him. In 1972, he led Young Conservative attacks on Enoch Powell at the party conference, prompting local party members to rescind his selection as the candidate for the Drake division of Plymouth.

But, by 1976, he had the ultra- safe seat of Wirral. By 1981, he was an assistant Whip. One of his early ministerial jobs was as junior to Peter Walker in the Department of Energy from 1984 to 1987, a period which included the miners' strike. He finally made the Cabinet when he went to Wales in 1990.

Throughout his ministerial career, he has practised that under- used maxim that a little charm and a ready smile will get you a long way. He has a confident yet self- effacing manner. He has been known to ask journalists what they would do in his position, adding for good measure: 'And I must press you on this'. Even his critics describe him as 'friendly, liked and energetic'. Ann Widdecombe, one of his junior ministers at employment, recalls that, when hospitalised after contracting a bug abroad, she awoke to find an enormous bouquet of flowers from her boss by her bedside.

As his grey suits and stripy ties suggest, Hunt is still at heart a lawyer, ready to carry out any brief with unswerving enthusiasm. As minister for local government, he was responsible for the poll tax. In 1989 Mr Hunt told the Conservative Party conference that the tax would 'represent a much fairer and better way of paying for local government'. A year later he went one better arguing that the 'local community charge is a winner'. Now, he jokes that he invented the poll tax in England - and repealed it in Wales.

SO WHAT does he believe in? Ask David Hunt whether he resembles a European Christian Democrat rather than an American Republican, and back comes the reply: 'I am a Christian Democrat'. In the past year, Mr Hunt has published a pamphlet called Right Ahead. He said he was worried about the young becoming 'atomised'; described Toryism as 'a communitarian philosophy'; wrinkled his nose at the 'laissez- faire economy'; and urged a return to 'One Nation Toryism'.

Few colleagues, however, consider him a profound or original thinker. Personal sentiment, experience and political judgement are perhaps more important to him. He regarded John Monks as a man he could do business with. Similarly, on capital punishment, his conversion followed a visit to Dartmoor, where he met convicted murderers of police officers.

On Europe, he believes in long-term economic and monetary union (though not necessarily with a single currency). But his Heathite instincts have been tempered. He fought a tough public campaign against any interference from the EU in UK employment conditions partly because, according to those close to him, he knew that the European social agenda was 'simply not saleable to his own party'.

The question is the direction these pragmatic instincts will lead. His versatility - soothing the TUC, yet also playing the political hitman at a Tory party conference - has served him well. But it may also be a weakness, giving the impression of a man perhaps just a little too agreeable to too many different people for his own good.

Why Mr Major eschewed the chance to make him party chairman remains something of a mystery. When the rumour broke that he was destined for Central Office, his friends were keen to play down his interest; later, Mr Hunt decided that this might have gone a little too far and put out the word that his reluctance was much overstated. In any event, the offer was never made.

Instead, at their interview in the Cabinet room on Wednesday, the Prime Minister read out the list of five committees which Mr Hunt will chair, and gave him an explicit brief to help present the Government's case through the media. Friends of Lord Wakeham, who Mr Hunt replaces in his committee-chairing role, know there are dangers in this position. You can make powerful enemies, said one, and 'the thought of Hunt roughing up a Heseltine, a Howard or a Clarke is rather difficult'.

Is the job a reward for loyalty, a punishment for his reluctance to go to Central Office or just a plain old poisoned chalice to a potential rival? It was, after all, the left of the party which defenestrated Mrs Thatcher, and some might see Mr Hunt as a potential challenger. More than most jobs, this one will depend on what the incumbent makes of it, and the support he gets from the Prime Minister. But past performance suggests David Hunt will get on with it and keep smiling through.

(Photograph omitted)