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Jeremy Hunt turns born-again Brexiteer as he bids to succeed Theresa May

Addressing conference, the foreign secretary invoked Thatcher and Churchill to attack the EU in a combative pitch to Tory Brexiteers.

By Patrick Maguire

Jeremy Hunt has set the bar high for leadership pitches with his conference speech. Reaching for the lever marked “jingoism”, the foreign secretary invoked Thatcher and Churchill to attack the EU, which he likened to a prison and accused of seeking to punish the UK for trying to leave.

The most confrontational passage of his address contains the sort of rhetoric we are more used to hearing from his predecessor, Boris Johnson:

“Our friends in Europe need to understand that 52% of the country aren’t rabid populists trying to build Fortress Britain. We fought for peace on our continent so none of us will ever turn our back on history.
“But nor, and I want to address our European friends directly now, should you. At the moment you seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves.
“Not just with economic disruption. But even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea. What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? 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…
“If you reject the hand of friendship offered by our Prime Minister, you turn your back on the partnership that has given Europe more security, more freedom and more opportunities than ever in history, and a setback for the EU will become a wholly avoidable tragedy for Europe.
“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.’
“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.
“That is the heart of the problem – and if you’re worried about the EU’s future that is also the solution. And 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. So as your friends of many years we say simply this: Brexit is not about whether you succeed or we succeed. Europe prospers when we both succeed and it’s time to change your approach.
“Staying the course when the going gets tough. Any student of history knows that’s more or less a definition of being British. But you do need to know where the course is set.”

Read that and it is difficult to concieve of Hunt ever backing Remain, as he did in 2016. But as far as his enthusiastically-advertised leadership ambitions go, that is precisely the point. Both the foreign secretary and Sajid Javid, the other frontrunner for the leadership, campaigned with David Cameron during the EU referendum and for plenty of Conservative Brexiteers, it is a sin that will live long in the memory.

Indeed, Stewart Jackson, the former Dexeu chief of staff helping lead the guerrilla campaign to “Chuck Chequers”, told me last week that pro-Leave MPs would not accept anyone who backed Remain in 2016 as leader. The European Research Group, however, will not have the numbers to get a candidate of their own to the later rounds of a contest. For Hunt or Javid to be successful – both in reaching the final two and winning the membership – they will need to lay their Brexit credentials on thick. And that is exactly what Hunt, who is increasingly spoken of by MPs as the clear favourite and packed out the conference hall in a way that no other minister did today, has done.

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