In extraordinary rhetoric, the foreign secretary attacked EU leaders for turning their backs on the “confidence and ideals of the European dream”.
Instead, he told the Conservative conference, Brussels appeared to “think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves”.
“What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream?” he asked. “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.
“The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish, it will grow – and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape.”
Mr Hunt then invoked Margaret Thatcher’s famous battle cry against EU centralisation, saying: “We understand the EU wants to protect itself.
“But if the only way to deal with the UK leaving is to try to force its break-up, as someone much more distinguished than me once said, the answer is ‘No No No’.”
And he added: “Let me say one more thing about these talks. Never mistake British politeness for British weakness because, if you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don’t crumble – we fight.”
The speech came as speakers appeared to compete to make the most anti-EU address on the opening day of the conference in Birmingham.
Digby Jones, the former CBI leader, warned Emmanuel Macron he would “pay a heavy price for saying he wants to punish us”, over the Brexit negotiations.
And Andy Street, the West Midlands mayor, joked that local workers made the “weapons system for the F35 fighter” and the EU should remember that “next time they pick our fight with our prime minister”.
In his speech, Mr Hunt urged the EU not to “reject the hand of friendship offered by our prime minister”.
And he said: “Punishing Britain for Brexit is dealing with the symptoms of the problem and not the cause, which is the failure of political elites across Europe – including people like me in Britain – to deal with people’s concerns about migration.”
Mr Hunt was quickly condemned as a “fifth-rate Boris impersonator” by Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader and supporter of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain group.
“Comparing the EU to the USSR is just downright offensive. He seems to have taken Boris’s job and his outlandish jibes,” Mr Farron said.
And the speech – which appeared to be part of Mr Hunt’s manoeuvrings to be a future Tory leadership contender – also went too far for Conservative MP Steve Baker, an arch-Brexiteer.
“People who were for Remain trying to appeal to Brexiteers time and again go too far,” he said. “Time and again, saying things that are just too strident and make my toes curl.”
Mr Hunt campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum and, following David Cameron’s resignation, suggested there should be a second public vote on the eventual Brexit deal.
However, he has since reinvented himself as a firm Leave supporter, insisting the UK would “thrive” even if it crashes out of the EU without a deal.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies