Jeremy Hunt: Rough ride for the smooth operator

Culture, media and sport? A brief as wide as that and the risk of tripping up is ever-present, as the new man in charge has just discovered.

Tim Walker@timwalker
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:55

Jeremy Hunt can normally be relied upon to say the right thing.

The new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was one of the faces of the Conservative election campaign: camera-friendly and competent whenever required to work the so-called "Newsnight shift". But this week Hunt became the first Conservative cabinet member to put foot in mouth, when he appeared to suggest in a television interview that hooliganism was partly responsible for the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 – a tragedy caused, subsequent investigations found, by a failure of crowd control on the part of the police. Relatives of the victims were appalled by Hunt's words, for which he immediately apologised. But this was not merely a case of misidentifying the Liverpool back four. Hillsborough remains an open wound in a city that has punished politicians for similar gaffes in the past.

Hunt has never hidden the fact that he'd be the weakest link on A Question of Sport, nor that he was more familiar with the Culture and Media sections of his brief when he took it on. Famously, his favourite form of exercise is not a five-a-side kickabout, nor even a game of tennis, but dancing the Brazilian lambada. Sports knowledge – or the lack of it – is a problem that has plagued previous inhabitants of his department. In 2001 the Labour sports minister Richard Caborn spectacularly failed a simple sports trivia test on BBC Radio 5; the episode stayed with him throughout his tenure. The DCMS is often thought of as an underachiever by its Whitehall rivals, and to be appointed its Secretary of State is not an oft-stated ambition among prospective cabinet members.

The post was described by its first holder, David Mellor, as "Minister of Fun" when it was originally created under the last Tory administration, but it will be far from fun for Hunt to make the deep cuts now required of him. Not even the Olympics are immune from the coalition's cost-saving programme, and there are battles in the offing with the BBC, disgruntled internet users and the arts community. On the other hand, should he make a good fist of the difficult challenges ahead, Hunt will be well-placed to progress to bigger things.

Hunt's was a quintessential Conservative upbringing. Born in November 1966, he is the eldest son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, once one of the country's top-ranking naval officers. He grew up in Godalming, a wealthy commuter town in the South West Surrey constituency he now represents, and became head boy of the prestigious local boarding school, Charterhouse. An Oxford contemporary of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, he won a first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Magdalen College, and served as President of the university's Conservative Association at the height of the Thatcher years in 1987.

After a stint teaching English in Japan, Hunt worked in public relations during the 1990s, before he and his friend Mike Elms founded Hotcourses, an educational publishing firm specialising in guidebooks to courses and colleges. The company's subsequent success puts Hunt near the top of a formidable Cabinet rich list, below Chancellor George Osborne but ahead of the Prime Minister. He may have left the everyday running of the business for politics in 2005, when he was first elected to Virginia Bottomley's former seat, but Hunt's personal fortune is now estimated as being somewhere between £4m and £4.5m.

Those who work with him in Westminster and beyond tend to describe him warmly. Open and enthusiastic (and sharing Cameron's preference for performing without notes) he unexpectedly won over a suspicious arts community as a shadow cabinet member, at the expense of his Labour predecessor Ben Bradshaw. Embracing the arts was crucial to the detoxification of the Tory brand, Hunt admitted to a Conservative website, because the party had been seen as so hostile to the sector under the Thatcher administration. During the election campaign, Hunt's Home Counties constituency also meant he was close at hand to lend his charm to the London media on behalf of the party whenever necessary.

He was one of the 100 lowest-claiming MPs in the parliamentary expenses scandal, mocked only for his claim of 1p to cover a 12-second telephone call. One of the DCMS's first claims to fame in the new parliament was David Cameron's despatch box revelation that it had splurged £140 per person on cut flowers and pot plants under Labour. Hunt, in contrast, was quick to curtail excess spending, cancelling the department's ministerial cars soon after walking through the door.

Within the party, Hunt is is seen as a rising star, even a potential future leader. But though he was generally thought to have acquitted himself well in opposition, Hunt is yet to impress everybody while in Government. Pre-election promises to abolish the BBC Trust have been progressively watered down, with Hunt appearing (at least to some other Tory MPs) to have capitulated to the corporation's chairman, Sir Michael Lyons. Others are disappointed by the coalition's failure to repeal the controversial digital economy act. The Liberal Democrats had opposed its passage in opposition, while the Tories supported it only reluctantly before the election.

Though the online electoral campaigning of the Conservatives outstripped the other major parties' web efforts, Hunt demonstrated a lack of internet savvy after the election, when he wiped his Twitter feed of disparaging references to Deputy PM Nick Clegg – only for a blogger to dig them from the archives and republish them. The blogger was, indeed, one of Hunt's own less-adoring constituents. Some suggest Hunt might have preferred a more high-profile cabinet post, leaving the DCMS to, say, his now-culture minister Ed Vaizey, but the potential Tory landslide never materialised, and the coalition provided the Prime Minister with less room for shuffling his staff.

Meanwhile, as other major departments such as Education, Health and Justice begin to roll out new ideas by the dozen, Hunt's DCMS has been strangely quiet, say some leading arts figures. He and his team stand accused of cutting budgets without offering any innovative reforms of the Arts Council, for example. The arts community is not likely to keep quiet if it's unhappy with the Government – and its members have loud voices. While Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, this week welcomed Hunt's call for more private, philanthropic funding for culture, others say it remains crude and ill-defined as policy.

Is that the Secretary of State's fault, or his department's? Colleagues say Hunt is utterly committed to his brief, but he's busy at home, too. He and his Chinese wife Lucia were married just last year, and he took a week's paternity leave when his first son was born soon after the election. Perhaps it was a new parent's sleepless nights that resulted in his lapse of judgement when making those unfortunate comments about Hillsborough this week. When he realised what he'd said – or, at least, how it could be construed – Hunt was reportedly mortified, and soon got in touch with the victims' families to express his regret.

The gaffe may be remembered for some time in Liverpool, but it's unlikely to linger long in the memories of the wider public, or of Hunt's Conservative colleagues. Doubtless he's young and smart enough to ride out this minor controversy. And if he can, then this high-flyer also has every chance of achieving what no Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has ever achieved before: promotion.

A life in brief

Born: 1 November 1966, Surrey

Education: Attended Charterhouse, Surrey, where he was head boy. Went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, getting a 1st in philosophy, politics and economics and was president of the University Conservative Association.

Family: Son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, former Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, and Meriel Gievan. Married Lucia Guo in 2009. One son.

Career: Co-founded Hotcourse Ltd in 1991, which provides information on educational opportunities; he remains a director. Elected MP for South West Surrey in May 2005 and appointed shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in 2007, a post which he now holds in government.

He says: "I consider my responsibility for media policy to be one of the most sacred I have. This is because the way our media totally fundamental to our existence as a free society"

They say: "I am in a bit of a state of shock, because I more or less agree with everything you said." Alistair Spalding, director of Sadler's Wells Theatre, after Hunt made a speech calling for more 'focused' spending on the arts

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