Politics Explained

In the Hunt: why there is a surprise contender for next Tory leader

Conservative confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership is waning – and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt could be the surprise antidote, writes Sean O’Grady

Tuesday 23 November 2021 15:26
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<p>Smiling assassin? Hunt and Johnson in 2019 </p>

Smiling assassin? Hunt and Johnson in 2019

Could Jeremy Hunt be prime minister by this time next year – if not sooner?

It’s not implausible. Such is the modern Tory party’s addiction to faction and plotting, it is an open secret that a substantial number of Tory MPs, from various sides and places, are thinking about the succession to Boris Johnson, and with some urgency. To put things at their simplest, Johnson doesn’t inspire much love or personal loyalty, and these days he seems not even to be commanding respect. He was useful to the party as an election winner and the man who could “get Brexit done”. He has now outlived his usefulness. Apart from Nadine Dorries, and possibly Priti Patel, there are few even at the top of the party ready to form a praetorian guard around the prime minister. Thoughts are indeed turning to the next leadership succession. The two main contenders from within the cabinet are obviously Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, both grassroots darlings, but Hunt has not been forgotten. His day may yet come.

Since he lost the leadership to Boris Johnson in 2019, he has played a smart game. He’s been basically loyal to the government, but critical and defiant when he felt it necessary. The recent rebellion on the social care cap is an excellent example. Hunt advised his fellow MPs not to vote against the “stingy” package, because it could be altered by a future government (without actually saying a Hunt-led government). Theresa May and many others followed the same route, and ensured the new social care cap was carried by only a narrow majority, leaving it open to fresh rebellion from the Lords or a Johnson U-turn. His latest idea is a sensible proposal to introduce a structured personnel and training plan for the NHS. He has also adopted the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other effective hostages in Iran.

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