The last time Jeremy Hunt was summoned to Downing Street by Theresa May during a reshuffle, he refused to give up his post as health secretary. There has been no repeat performance tonight: Hunt has accepted the job of foreign secretary, replacing Boris Johnson.
Usually the promotion of an ambitious cabinet minister to one of the great offices of state would be taken as a huge fillip for their leadership hopes. For Hunt and his unity pitch to succeed Theresa May, however, the picture is less clear-cut.
The two fundamental planks of Hunt’s bid for the premiership have been plain for Westminster to see for quite some time. The first is his stewardship of NHS, more often than not the electorate’s number one issue. His logic, colleagues say, is that no job is tougher for a Tory minister, not even the premiership. With both a new £20 billion funding package and his status as the longest serving health secretary ever secured, he believes he can now convincingly argue to his fellow MPs that he can handle anything.
The second has been his unsubtle but effective conversion from Remain to Leave. Hunt was effusive in his praise for David Davis today – “When we deliver a successful Brexit,” he said, “history will judge that David Davis was one of the great architects” – and never wastes an opportunity to stress his Eurosceptic credentials.
His problem now is that his promotion to replace Boris at the Foreign Office limits his ongoing capacity for self-promotion along these lines.
No longer is he in charge of a brief that speaks to the concerns of almost every Tory MP and cuts across factional lines unlike any other. Classy turns at summits on the Iranian nuclear deal won’t win the support of colleagues in marginal seats like extra cash for the NHS does. Foreign trips limit one’s ability to work the tearooms and bars at Westminster.
The unique demands of collective responsibility in his new post – and Hunt’s own performative loyalty to May – will similarly limit his ability to differentiate himself on Brexit.
Whisper it, but the irresistible rise of Jeremy Hunt might just have hit its ceiling.