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24 June 2018

Jeremy Hunt is openly pitching for the Tory leadership

The health secretary’s hard line on Brexit is a bid to prove his credentials to colleagues.

By Patrick Maguire

A week on from Theresa May’s promise of an extra £384 million a week for the NHS, and Jeremy Hunt is no closer to answering how exactly it will be funded. 

In an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning, the health secretary refused to be drawn on which taxes would rise to fund the commitment, and how the burden would be shared, if at all, with the money Theresa May claims will be freed up by leaving the EU. 

On one issue, however, there was no such ambiguity: Brexit. Hunt was once a remainer, but has since resiled from that stance and said he would vote leave in a re-run of the referendum. 

It is savvy politicking from a minister with one eye on the Tory leadership and he further burnished his credentials this morning. Asked by Marr about warnings by Airbus that it would quit the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Hunt struck a markedly hostile tone.

“I thought it was completely inappropriate for businesses to be making these kinds of threats for one very simple reason.

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“We are at an absolutely critical moment in the Brexit discussions and what that means is that we need to get behind Theresa May to deliver the best possible Brexit – a clean Brexit.

“What businesses want… is clarity and certainty and the more that we undermine Theresa May the more likely we are to end up with a fudge, which would be an absolute disaster for everyone.”

Conciliatory it isn’t. Nor is it a strategy befitting of a “sensible Conservative government” that Hunt said businesses wanted. But to labour on such criticisms is to misunderstand his target audience – Tory MPs.

While he praised the prime minister as possessing “the instincts of a Brexiteer but the cautious pragmatism of a Remainer”, his comments are an invitation to his colleagues to attribute those qualities to him. 

As he grows in confidence and stature, we are seeing the broad contours of Hunt’s leadership pitch emerge: a recovering remainer with the zeal of the Eurosceptic convert, he will sell himself as the unity candidate.