There aren’t many things going for Theresa May at the moment, but with Jeremy Hunt at the Foreign Office she will, at least, not have to worry about him inflicting a sudden and damaging resignation on her beleaguered government.
The MP for South West Surrey, who recently became the longest-serving health secretary with more than five years and 300 days in the job, has maintained a studious loyalty to the prime minister throughout her current difficulties. He is not one for spectacular fireworks or inflammatory language.
In Conservative Party terms, this is a sensible strategy for anyone who wants to one day succeed their leader. Michael Heseltine wielded the knife and never wore the crown; John Major, by contrast, remained quietly loyal until the dying days of Margaret Thatcher’s government, when he went awol with toothache.
Only on Monday morning, in the wake of David Davis’s shock resignation the night before, Hunt was out touring the radio and TV studios making clear he was standing by the prime minister.
Yet the then health secretary was also subtly positioning himself just in case a leadership contest is on the cards. Hunt reminded his party that he voted remain but is a born again Brexiteer, as he would, he said, vote Leave if given the chance again.
Amid an increasingly divisive and bitter atmosphere in the Tory party, Hunt is emerging as a sort of Goldilocks Tory – neither too pro-Remain, nor too Brexity.
Hunt would never join a coup against the PM, but he would almost certainly enter an open leadership contest. Now he is in one of the most senior positions in the government, Hunt is surely in a strong position to succeed May, whenever that moment comes.
May’s decision to promote Hunt to the foreign office comes from an urgent need to steady the Tory ship in one of the major offices of state. She had been tipped to appoint Michael Gove to the post, but perhaps worried that the current environment secretary could follow his fellow Leave campaign ally out of the door within days – despite Gove’s profession of loyalty on Sunday.
However, Hunt’s elevation has led to some of the hard Brexiteers claiming there has been a “Remain takeover” of the government – given he, chancellor Philip Hammond, home secretary Sajid Javid and the PM herself all voted for Britain to stay in the EU.
In reality, with rumours that the number of Tory MPs ready to trigger a confidence vote is nearing the 48 target necessary, she had little choice but to promote a loyal minister.
Hunt’s promotion will, nevertheless, cause some dismay among his many critics in the health sector. It is extraordinary that the Conservative MP survived so long in the job during a period of austerity, at first under David Cameron and George Osborne, which saw NHS cash and resources cut to the bone.
Even more extraordinary that that term came after a controversial period as culture secretary, when his alleged links with Rupert Murdoch led to accusations of a conflict of interest over the media tycoon’s planned takeover of BSkyB.
Under Hunt’s tenure at the Department of Health, waiting list figures have crept up, hospitals have struggled to cope under a series of winter crises, and claims from Hunt and the prime minister that the government was spending more money every year on the health service were met with incredulity from doctors, nurses and other health workers.
However, in recent weeks, Hunt managed to change the narrative on health spending, successfully arguing for more cash – this time in real terms – year on year for the NHS as the government loosened its purse strings. By the time of the NHS’ 70th birthday celebrations last week, Hunt was being portrayed as a great defender of the health service. It is a rebranding that many health workers and patients will find staggering.
Hunt’s successor at Health, Matt Hancock – another remain voter – managed to avoid serious scandal in his previous post as culture secretary. Hancock has garnered something of a cult following after setting up his own social media platform earlier this year. Whether he can remain as popular at Health is another question.
For Hunt, he inherits a problematic brief at the Foreign Office, some of it self-inflicted errors by his predecessor Boris Johnson. The case of the British Iranian woman held in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is in need of resolution. More urgently, the Foreign Office needs to give off an air of professionalism and stability when Donald Trump visits the UK on Thursday. Who knows what further ministerial changes will have taken place by then.
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