In public, Jeremy Hunt, who is tall and slim, with wide eyes and a boyish, grown-out buzz cut, tends to wrap his right arm across his body so as to hold his stiff left arm just above the cuff. It’s as if he were worried about the arm making rapid, involuntary movements, like something out of Dr Strangelove. His father, Sir Nicholas Hunt, was a senior Royal Navy officer, and there’s a remarkable calmness as well as something seigneurial in Hunt’s bearing and public persona.
In person, Hunt speaks precisely and maintains eye contact. Unlike Theresa May, he does not appear awkward when speaking in public or taking questions from the media. Unlike some politicians, he’s not a tyrannical monologist: he asks questions and listens. “He is considerate and remembers things about you that matter,” says Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the ConservativeHome website.
Educated at Charterhouse, where he was head boy, Hunt went up to Oxford in the mid-1980s as the postwar Keynesian consensus was unravelling. There he was a contemporary of Boris Johnson and David Cameron and head of the Conservative Association. He took a first in PPE and was, in his self-description, a “libertarian firebrand”. In his twenties, he went to live and work in Japan, where he learned the language which he speaks with accomplished, idiomatic fluency. A multimillionaire entrepreneur – he earned £15m in 2017 from the sale of Hotcourses, an educational listings company he co-founded with old friend Mike Elms – Hunt is the richest member of the cabinet
On 10 January, Hunt was the principal speaker at a lunch hosted by the Hong Kong Association at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London. He began his speech (I was present as a guest of his team) with a self-deprecating joke, recalling the bizarre moment on an official visit to China last summer when he told his hosts that his charming Chinese wife, Lucia Guo, with whom he has three young children, was in fact Japanese. Before making the gaffe, Hunt had been speaking in Japanese to the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, but his comment left his hosts bewildered.
The questions after his speech were less about Hunt’s optimistic vision of a buccaneering open trading nation than about the destabilising effects of the shambolic Brexit process on business. He answered them – reiterating his vision of a tolerant and international Britain – and was then hurried on to the next appointment, a meeting with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at Downing Street.
The next time we met was on the morning of 31 January, at RAF Northolt, from where we flew to Bucharest for the biannual Gymnich informal gathering of EU foreign ministers. He was accompanied on the trip by Lucia and his advisers. I was the only journalist present.
Hunt has an emollient style. He is courteous, a confident speaker and follows agreed briefing positions. During our two days together in Bucharest, he beguiled his Romanian hosts by prefacing each encounter – whether it was with Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, President Klaus Iohannis at Cotroceni Palace, London Stock Exchange group staff at an official reception, or journalists at a round table discussion on media freedom to which I contributed – with expressions of respect and understanding. He often began conversations thus: “If you were a Martian looking at Romania compared to 30 years ago, you’d say it’s one of the countries that’s most changed in the world. But…”
There was always a “but” as Hunt nudged and mollified but also made his point. For instance, at the round table on press freedom, he listened to journalists’ anxieties about creeping censorship and authoritarianism in Romania and promised to discuss them with Prime Minister Dancila, which he did but in his own circuitous manner: first he thought his way into her position (she has a fractious relationship with President Iohannis, an ethnic German who represented the rival National Liberal Party), remarked on how much Romania had changed since the Ceausescu dictatorship (a Martian coming to earth was mentioned) and only then raised the matter of media censorship in the EU’s most easterly country, which is also a Nato member.
When we met at RAF Northolt, Hunt had just given an interview to the BBC Today programme in which he conceded in public for the first time that Britain was unlikely to leave the European Union on 29 March and would, in all likelihood, seek an Article 50 extension. As we chatted before boarding our flight – severe weather had delayed it – Hunt observed that his comments were leading the news bulletins. He hadn’t agreed the line about an extension with 10 Downing Street but seemed unperturbed. Later that day, when I joined him, Lucia and several advisers for a post-dinner drink in our hotel bar, his Zen-like mood was unchanged. “He has this inner self-confidence and calmness, peace and positivity, which is quite enviable,” I was told.
Hunt’s parliamentary disparagers liken him to a chameleon because of his pragmatism, instinct for survival and willingness to blend in and adapt to changed circumstances: most notably he has pivoted from voting Remain in the 2016 referendum and, at one point, demanding a second referendum to comparing, in one ill-judged speech intended to appease Brexit hardliners, the European Union to the Soviet Union. He regrets making the comparison but it enraged some of his old friends and associates.
Andrew Cooper, a Tory peer and former director of strategy to David Cameron, tweeted on 23 March: “Contrary to common perception, most MPs do actually have strong beliefs that they stand by. Not @Jeremy_Hunt. He is an unprincipled windsock who will *believe* whatever he thinks you want him to *believe*.” Cooper later deleted the tweet.
Another complaint I’ve heard about Hunt is that he has no real politics, no ideological anchor. But those who know him best disagree, and dismiss Cooper’s complaint as absurd.
“I’ve heard that chameleon line and I think that does fundamentally misunderstand him,” Simon Philips, managing partner of the private equity company Root Capital and a close friend of Hunt’s, told me. They met through their work with, and financial support for, the Nyumbani UK and Hotcourses Foundation, an educational and health care charity for underprivileged children in Kenya, particularly orphans.
“I also read another one from someone saying he was like a hologram, which is perhaps trying to get at the same kind of thing. Both are wrong,” Philips said. “I find him the complete opposite of a chameleon. Whether he is speaking to me, Lucia, you, the president of China, the maid, Princess Anne, a waiter, his siblings… he is basically exactly the same… Same warm, courteous, polite, approachable manner… And he’s not a people pleaser. He never takes anything personally so he’s very good at disagreeing with someone politically or professionally without letting it affect his personal relationship with them. Unlike others, like Gordon Brown and Theresa May!
“Sometimes I wish he would stick his head above the parapet and say more and be more vocal. And perhaps that is what the hologram point is also getting at, ie what does he believe in? But that comes from the fact that he believes in loyalty in cabinet, and loyalty to the PM, and doesn’t believe in going beyond your brief to make a name for yourself. If he stood to be leader then I would hope and expect he would address the hologram criticism pretty quickly and effectively because he does have a lot to say, and that would be his chance to say it.”
Since becoming Foreign Secretary in July 2018, Jeremy Hunt has had four private meetings with Henry Kissinger. Asked to name a book that has influenced him more than any other in recent times, he mentions World Order, Kissinger’s epic work of geopolitical analysis. Hunt is fascinated by China – by its inexorable rise, the challenges it poses to Western power and the fragmenting liberal world order. He respects China’s commitment to long-term strategic planning and President Xi Jinping’s preparedness to defend free market globalisation, as he did in his Davos speech in 2017, and yet he understands how the rise of China is changing the political topography in this era of renewed great power rivalry.
But why Kissinger? What does the 95-year-old former US secretary of state in the Nixon administration know that Hunt wants to know? “What I learned from Kissinger is, before you rush to judgement in foreign affairs, try to understand where the other side is coming from,” Hunt told me during one of several conversations we had over a three-month period. “Learn about their history. Think about how the world looks like from their vantage point, and then think about your long-term strategic interest, and then you’re more likely to get the decision right.”
Hunt acknowledges the need “for deep wisdom and humility” when engaging with China: “We need to understand the way the Chinese think, and particularly their desire for respect.” He is not sure whether China quite knows whether it wants to be a hugely prosperous and successful modern economy, a giant version of Singapore, or whether it is seeking to supplant America as the global hegemon. “There are people in China who want both things. But if we were forced to choose [between China and America], we would always come down on the side of the United States.”
I reminded Hunt that Kissinger made grave errors in office. “Historians will say he made his share of mistakes, but he was also responsible for bringing China in from the cold, which is one of the defining achievements of the postwar era.
“What’s fascinating about Kissinger is that he was actually asked to write a letter supporting Remain in the referendum. He refused, because he has always felt that it’s absolutely essential for the world that there should be an independent British foreign policy to be the bridge between Europe and America, and he always had a concern that the European project might subsume that independent British voice.”
Jeremy Hunt is thinking seriously about Britain’s post-Brexit role in the world and the books he’s read recently include Berlin Rules by Paul Lever, The Last Girl by Nadia Murad, Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker and The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre. He hosts occasional dinners on foreign policy at his official London residence at Carlton Gardens, to which an eclectic mix of politicians, academics and experts are invited for discussions under Chatham House rules (in which observations are off the record). So far there have been three dinners: on Iran, China and Russia.
At the Russia event, at the end of last year, Hunt’s opening remarks were considered to be provocative. Russia had been going wrong since 2008, he said, but the question was: what can we do to put it right? “What I liked about the occasion,” one of the guests told me, “was that here was a Foreign Secretary who wanted to learn from experts. It was a bit of a strange group but Hunt listened – he was a bit dogmatic at the beginning but never didactic.”
Conservative compassion: “The central charge against us is ‘These guys don’t care.’” Charlie Forgham-Bailey for New Statesman
In October 2018, Hunt delivered a speech in which he said Britain should seek to build an “invisible chain” linking together the world’s democracies. Mixing metaphors, he said to me in reference to Kissinger: “Even after Brexit we can still be that bridge [between Europe and America], and that has to be our role; that’s part of what I’ve called the invisible chain.”
Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson, who because of his narcissism and carelessness is held in contempt in the Foreign Office, Hunt, who is 52, has the temperament of a diplomat and is respected by his advisers and the civil servants who work closely with him. “He is a political appointment but he does have the tone and manner of a natural diplomat,” one senior Foreign Office official who has travelled with Hunt told me. “His experience of China and Japan and how you approach meetings in those countries has informed his style.”
Hunt has chosen two signature causes as Foreign Secretary: the defence of media freedom around the world and the protection of Christians from persecution. (Hunt is himself a Christian.) But, according to Peter Ricketts, a former permanent secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who is now a cross-bench peer, these are merely well-intentioned distractions from the more urgent and demanding task of rebuilding the United Kingdom’s shattered international reputation. A country once renowned for its diplomacy and pragmatism has been humiliated by the self-wounding process of Brexit. “Hunt inherited a Foreign Office in disarray after the Boris Johnson years,” Ricketts told me. “Britain has been absent on parade as a foreign power – partly because of Brexit, partly because Johnson was not taken seriously.”
Ricketts was unimpressed by Hunt’s metaphor of the invisible chain. “It’s an odd phrase to use. What he needs to do is put in the hard work, travel, get in there among the big players. Good causes – William Hague on sexual violence, Hunt on media freedom, and so on – are OK but these are second order causes. What we want to know is the British position on the rise of China, the war in Yemen… Britain has been absent from the major dossiers. I don’t think we have realised what a change Brexit will make to our international reputation. We have become a lamentable figure in the world because of the way we have conducted the negotiations… We will have to wise up to a different status – and therefore work all the harder. Civil servants will do a good job if well led. But we have been on auto-pilot. And my fear is that we will continue to drift. Hunt is a serious person but I haven’t yet seen that he has cottoned on to or measured the scale of the changes in the world or where Britain fits in.”
Hunt listened patiently on the flight to Bucharest as I outlined the reasons for Ricketts’s disenchantment. “I’ve been to 24 countries [as Foreign Secretary] and there’s no doubt people are shocked at what’s happening, and that’s partly because we’ve been blessed with very stable government of whichever party and a sense that Britain is a country that’s able to make its mind up decisively,” he said. “That hasn’t been the image we’ve been portraying to the world. But I would say two things: don’t underestimate the respect that Britain is still held in… because people see Britain, alongside the United States, as one of the architects of a world order that has been by far the most successful humanity has ever had. And, the second thing, they look at the risks in the world order now, and they want Britain to play its role. They actually see Britain as a force for good.”
Does he regret Britain’s retreat from the top table of Europe, becoming no longer a rule-maker but, abjectly, a rule-taker? “Well, personally I do. I like our role. I want Britain to have as much influence as we can… but Brexit doesn’t automatically mean that’s going to go down… We have to show the EU that working closely with Britain is in the EU’s interest.”
Later he returned to the question. “I think we have to look to ourselves for salvation… We have an absolute responsibility to get through this period and be that strong voice for the values we believe in.”
Hunt believes that most politicians are defined either by their radicalism or their caution. He considers himself to be a radical – every bit as radical as Michael Gove. “I’m of course a very different politician to Michael Gove,” he explains, “… but in one fundamental way we are identical: we’re both politicians who judge ourselves by what we’ve changed, not by how popular we are. The reforms I introduced in the NHS were no less radical than those Michael introduced in schools.”
The reform he is proudest of is the introduction of an Ofsted-style system for rating hospitals and GP surgeries, which made Britain the first country in the world where hospitals must, by law, publish the number of avoidable deaths they have – across the NHS, it’s about 150 every week, but the figures are published by hospital. And his great cause became patient safety.
Hunt is adept at absorbing stress and is especially well organised – unlike Boris Johnson, a huckster who trades on his reputation for chaotic brilliance. During his six years as health secretary – he occupied the role for longer than any other politician – Hunt clashed bitterly with the medical establishment and in 2016 there were a series of junior doctor strikes over pay and contractual changes to working practices, the first such strikes for 40 years. Doctors still speak of his tenure with suppressed rage.
“He was universally reviled. Without doubt the most unpopular health secretary of my lifetime,” says Dr Phil Whitaker, GP, novelist and New Statesman health columnist. “He was playing a difficult hand of course, constrained by austerity, but he really alienated the entire profession over the fight he picked with juniors, and the language and tactics he employed.”
Hunt’s ambition was to get the NHS to do routine Monday-to-Friday work at weekends as well, but he had no additional funding to pay for it. “The only solution,” Whitaker says, “was to stretch an already exhausted and demoralised junior doctor workforce further through the imposition of a new contract. Hunt sought to justify this by creating a picture of hospitals inadequately staffed at weekends and patients dying unnecessarily as a result, persistently misrepresenting data from one controversial study in ways that even the report’s authors had explicitly warned against. Hunt remained intransigent throughout the subsequent industrial action, branding junior doctors as ‘reckless’, and rejecting a cross-party proposal to resolve matters by trialling his proposed changes.”
During the years of austerity, while the NHS did see increases in its budget, these were consistently pegged below the prevailing rate of health service inflation (the rate of inflation in health care costs for drugs, equipment and employing sufficient numbers of staff to meet ever-growing demand), leading to year-on-year real terms cuts in funding which has led to the sense of crisis in the service that persists even today.
“In general practice, most patients appreciate continuity of care,” Whitaker says, “but the drive to ever-greater access – being able to see any GP at evenings and weekends as well as during the week – is eroding continuity, which also leads to inefficient and lower-quality care. Continuity with one doctor has been shown to be associated with highest patient satisfaction, and lowest referral and admission rates.”
At the end of his bestselling memoir, This is Going to Hurt, about his experiences as a hospital doctor, the comedian Adam Kay published an open letter to Jeremy Hunt. “Because I defy any human being, even you, to know what the job really entails and question a single doctor’s motivation,” he wrote. “If you knew, you would be applauding them, you’d be proud of them, you’d be humbled by them, and you’d be eternally grateful for everything they do. The way you treat junior doctors demonstrably doesn’t work. I strongly suggest you seek a second opinion.”
Hunt’s response to the letter was characteristic: he invited Kay to meet him at his office in the Department of Health. “I read Kay’s letter,” he says now, “and I was just astonished at the total misunderstanding of who I am and what I’m about. Basically, he said, ‘Jeremy Hunt, I wish you would just go into a hospital and just stand with the doctors, see what happens, see the pain on people’s faces.’ But when I arrived at the job, I did exactly that! I went and I did shifts on the front line, which is where I began to understand the issues around patient safety.”
The meeting with Kay wasn’t a success. “I wanted a chat but it turned into a Jeremy Paxman-style interview, which was a shame, because what I want from the NHS is what he wants, which is a service that is brilliant for patients.”
When Hunt first discovered that, in modern health care, at least 10 per cent of patients were harmed during treatment, he was appalled. “This is not just about the NHS: this is about medicine all over the world… There’s this sort of terrible guilty secret in health care. I decided I would focus on patient safety and this would be my life’s mission, and it still is. When I leave front-line politics, I want to write a book on patient safety. I would like to do for patient safety what Al Gore has done for climate change: to go around the world – it’s a huge thing for me.”
On the return flight from Bucharest, as we talked over dinner, Hunt said: “I don’t think anyone would say that I’ve had easy jobs in politics. As culture secretary I had the nightmare of Leveson, where for a period the whole country quite wrongly thought that I was conspiring with the Murdochs. After that, I had health secretary, where I didn’t just have the junior doctors’ strike, I had a permanent lack of money…repeated winter crises because of pressures on the front line, including the terrible flu crisis in my last winter in the job. But then as Foreign Secretary, I’ve got Brexit.”
I reminded him of the evening in 2010 when, as the newly appointed culture secretary, he’d hid behind a tree to avoid being seen attending a lecture and dinner with Rupert Murdoch and his son James. For the first time, he seemed discomforted and winced at the memory. “That was just… oh, the actions of a totally inexperienced new cabinet minister who had only been in the job a matter of weeks. I thought, ‘I’m going in to hear this lecture by the Murdochs, here come a whole bunch of journalists, they’re going to put two and two together.’”
Hunt survived his early false steps – and now he aspires to be our next prime minister. “The health job usually smashes you to pieces if you are a Tory,” says the Conservative peer Richard Spring, who knows Hunt well. “But he never looked beaten up by it. He consistently said to me that he was upset how the NHS was used as a political football. He was frustrated that the Tories were being accused of wanting to privatise it, to demolish it. Accused of not caring. He cared passionately.”
Once a Remainer, Hunt has accepted the necessity of Brexit: there can be no turning back. “At the heart of the Brexit negotiations,” he told me, “is a very simple and important truth, which is that the British political class is implementing a decision that it didn’t want and didn’t agree with. But it’s doing it because we are a democracy, and we recognise that Brexit is a very big test of every principle that Britain has ever stood for; because we as a parliament said to the people, ‘We will implement what you say.’ People know that two thirds of parliamentarians were Remainers; they’re watching and saying, ‘Are they really going to do this?’ Because this is a test: are we really a democracy?”
But the most ardent Brexiteers are suspicious of Hunt and don’t trust his judgement on Europe. “Of course, he can’t lead the party,” one senior Conservative MP, a Brexiteer who is considering a leadership bid, told me. “The defining issue in our party for decades has been the Europe question. And Jeremy Hunt has been on the wrong side. The next leader will be a Brexiteer.”
The Foreign Secretary travelling with his wife Lucia Guo earlier this year. Credit: Andrew Parsons / I-Images
A successful businessman and a Christian (though not a dedicated churchgoer like Theresa May), Hunt is described by one close friend as “like a cross between Richard Branson and the Archbishop of Canterbury… He has the positivity, can-do, entrepreneurial spirit of an entrepreneur, but anchored by the root values of an Anglican bishop.”
When I put this to Hunt one afternoon in his office at the House of Commons, he laughed and pointed at a bookshelf behind me: “Look, I have several books by and about Richard Branson!”
What does he think of Branson?
“I’ve never met him, actually, and I’m infinitely less virtuous than the Archbishop of Canterbury. I never did an MBA when I set up my business, and so I made it my job to read as many biographies of people as possible. Branson is admired as a risk-taker, but he always says that he calculated with huge precision what the worst possible downside was from any risk he took, and he made sure that it was something he’d be able to cope with. And I think that is very, very smart advice.”
Hunt’s religious conviction infuses his politics but not didactically. “I’m Church of England. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, nor do I hide it if people ask me.” He doesn’t believe it is the reason for his political style: “There are lots of people who are much more devout Christians than me that are rather less emollient, and lots of very emollient non-believers.”
He’s also a rational optimist who believes in the inevitability of progress, a position much harder to maintain during this age of upheaval: during one conversation, he approvingly cited the work of the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.
What does he like about Pinker?
“I agree with him that the period since the Second World War has probably been the most successful we’ve had in the history of humanity – life expectancy has gone up!” But Hunt sees threats on the horizon. “By 2030 the largest economy in the world won’t be a democracy. Russia’s adventurism is increasingly beginning to look like some of the dangerous foreign policy decisions of the Soviet Union. Those things worry people. And they are looking to Britain and saying, ‘What are you going to do?’”
There are similarities here with Tony Blair, another Christian teleologist who has an unwavering belief in progress. Things, Blair used to say, can only get better – until they didn’t. But Hunt doesn’t share Blair’s sense of manifest destiny or his near-messianic certainty, hence his caution over Pinkerite optimism and liberal universalism. Even today, Blair believes the solution to the crisis of liberalism is yet more liberalism.
Hunt admires Blair as an “extraordinary election winner for Labour who shows you win elections in British politics from the centre ground”. But Hunt describes the Iraq War as a “disaster”, a lesson in humility and in the limits of Western power to remake the world. It was “not just a foreign policy misjudgement, but a breach of trust, because Blair used his presentational skills to persuade people of something that turned out not to be true, namely the existence of weapons of mass destruction”.
Apart from Theresa May, who will be gone soon, and Philip Hammond, no other politician has lasted as long as Jeremy Hunt in the cabinet – which has led some colleagues to dismiss his pitch for the leadership as “no more than Continuity Theresa May”.
“I have no difficulty sticking up for Theresa May, because her job, trying to deliver one of the most controversial policies you could imagine, in a hung parliament, is incredibly difficult,” Hunt told me. “But I am a very different person to Theresa. I am a tech entrepreneur by background. I share her vision that a modern Conservative Party has to show that we can change the lives of everyone in the country, but I would do it in a different way. We have to show we are thinking about life beyond Brexit. We need to find some big social issues that demonstrate that for the Conservatives it’s not all about money for money’s sake. We are the only party that understands wealth creation but for us it’s about prosperity with purpose.”
Prosperity with purpose: this, perhaps unintentionally, echoes one of Gordon Brown’s mantras in the early phase of New Labour: “Prudence for a purpose.”
“In my last job,” Hunt continued, “I secured an extra £20bn of funding for the NHS, which I was proud to do, but for Conservatives it is never just about funding… I had to put through some very difficult and challenging reforms.”
Is Jeremy Hunt the Last Cameroon, the great survivor of Conservative politics, a liberal Tory in a party increasingly in the grip of hardline English nationalism? The Cameroons are now scattered across politics, the media and business. Some of them are in Silicon Valley, Osborne is editing the Evening Standard. And their lost leader, David Cameron, has been silenced and humbled by the Brexit debacle. For him, it’s a case of never glad confident morning again.
Hunt shared the social liberalism and fiscal conservatism of the Cameroons – their upper middle class social ease and good fortune. But the Cameroons’ affluent Notting Hill liberalism, or crunchy eco-conservatism, epitomised sunnier times, before the world darkened and the new nationalism swept Europe. And Hunt was never fully one of the chumocracy. “They recognised Jeremy as a player,” one MP said, “but also recognised he wasn’t ultimately one of them.”
“I was on the outer inner circle,” Hunt says now of the Cameroons. “I was never in the inner circle. And I would have happily defined myself as a Cameroon in the first years of this decade. I now feel too weathered to describe myself that way!”
Can he win over the Tory right and the party’s ageing Brexit-inclined membership to become our next prime minister? He has told friends you “cannot plot your way to No 10” and has agonised about the strains occupying the highest office would impose on his family.
But Hunt’s ambition has a purpose: he is seriously committed to institutional reform, for better or worse. This he believes is what defines him as a politician, in a Gladstonian sense. And he’s still a contender, having emerged intact from the wreckage of the project to modernise the Conservative Party that culminated in the Brexit mess, the purge of the Cameroons from government by May in 2016, the reactionary turn in Tory politics and a painfully polarised country. (Michael Gove, once so close to Cameron, is back in the cabinet but he has been chastened and his friendship with David and Samantha Cameron destroyed, though he remains good friends with George Osborne.)
I asked Hunt what the Cameroons got wrong. Why did May purge them from her first cabinet while retaining him – was it because he had never clashed with or crossed her? Because he has few enemies?
“It’s two sides of the same coin. The genius of David Cameron and George Osborne was that they persuaded the country to accept the most challenging cuts to public spending in our peacetime history without poll tax[-style] riots, and that put the economy back on its feet to the extent we’re now creating 1,000 jobs every single day since we’ve been in office. But the other side of the coin, unfortunately, was that we were never able to get across the message that we are One Nation Conservatives with a vision for everyone: it just wasn’t possible in that climate of austerity to win that argument.”
He suggested most of us have forgotten just how tough it was in the early years of the coalition government. “When we were in recession we had to make very, very painful public spending cuts, six years of austerity in the NHS, which I felt more than any other cabinet minister, when we didn’t have as much money as we needed.”
The counter-argument is that austerity was a choice not a necessity: an ideological experiment that ultimately resulted in weakening social trust, the degradation of the public realm, the fraying of the social fabric and, indeed, the vote for Brexit, which in turn revealed mass disaffection in the small cities and towns. As Paul Collier, an Oxford University economist, has written in his excellent recent book, The Future of Capitalism, we in Britain are “living a tragedy”: vicious spatial and social rifts have destabilised society and coarsened our public discourse. We are experiencing mutinies – of which Brexit is the most serious.
Hunt pushed back on what I said about the effects of austerity but conceded that the Conservatives had lost the trust of young people. “The young are not just the future of the country; they are the future of the Conservative Party as well. Sorry to repeat the statistic, but it’s the party that’s created 1,000 jobs every single day since we’ve been in office.”
But many of these jobs, I suggested, are low-paid or part-time, productivity is poor, underemployment is a serious problem and in-work poverty is a scourge. “That’s an unfair criticism,” he said, “because the vast majority are full-time jobs… They are opportunities for young people, and youth unemployment has fallen dramatically. How have we let it happen that young people don’t see us as the party of aspiration? It’s because we have not won the values argument. The central charge against us is, ‘These guys don’t care.’ If we’re going to defeat Labour, we have to win that argument – and it’s about show not tell.”
Jeremy Hunt’s father rose to become the second in command in the navy but, I was told, was thwarted in his ultimate ambition to be First Sea Lord. His son is Foreign Secretary, a role he relishes, but he also wants more than this. He wants to be prime minister. “I think there’s some part of Jeremy that is saying: ‘I want to do this for you, Dad.’ That’s where the steel comes from,” a friend of his told me. “Did he ever look beaten in the health job? He’s dead, dead keen to do this, but he wraps it up a bit in that English way.”
Having spent time with Hunt, my sense is that his experience of government has changed and deepened his social and political understanding. He said to me that he has been “on a journey” and believes in a protective state. “When you look at the NHS and you’re responsible for it, you just feel incredibly proud of what a national health service can achieve.” Once an orthodox Thatcherite, he still thinks as an entrepreneur: but he’s also increasingly interested in dirigisme and admires the commitment to long-term strategic planning that is common in Singapore, Japan and China. One afternoon, reflecting on the vote for Brexit, he said to me: “The political classes allowed themselves to be become totally disconnected from many of the people who give them their jobs… For me the central lesson is: we have to reconnect. We don’t have a system in which the vast majority of people believe that if the economy prospers they will prosper.”
Hunt has empathy, which makes him quite different from May, a shy, awkward introvert whose premiership has become an exercise in masochism. When discussing, for instance, the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman who has been unjustly imprisoned in Iran since 2016, his eyes water a little and his voice breaks. “I admire ordinary people who have changed history,” he told me. “Richard Ratcliffe ignored Foreign Office advice and decided to go public about his wife Nazanin’s detainment. The result is the whole world knows about the injustice that is happening, not just to Nazanin but many other people in Iran. His courage means that the world has understood that, in Iran, innocent people are being detained for diplomatic leverage.”
I don’t doubt Hunt’s compassion. Nor do I doubt his resilience or ambition. He inspires enormous affection among his friends and close colleagues. He’s prepared to reach out across differences, political or otherwise, and believes he has the capacity to unite his shattered party.
He is all too aware of the chief charge against him – that he’s a chameleon, even an opportunist. He was told about Andrew Cooper’s tweeted abuse, though claims not to have seen it himself. “I don’t know Cooper particularly well,” he said. “Look, the only issue where that charge is made is Brexit.”
Who is Jeremy Hunt? Is he no more than a personally wealthy liberal capitalist who has survived on the front-line of politics for longer than he imagined even possible? Or does he have something that Cameron and Osborne did not: a deeper emotional intelligence and wisdom, an essential kindness even? He gives the impression of never having suffered. He has enjoyed immense good fortune and been rewarded with life’s glittering prizes. “He knows he has been lucky,” one friend told me. “But he’s not selfish. He’s the guy if I was in the shit who I would call – and I know he would answer.”
Hunt understands that moderation is desirable, especially in this age of extremes. He wants to reach out to the 48 per cent who voted Remain. He wants to demonstrate that the Tories are a party not just of aspiration but of compassion. But, he says, the Conservative idea of compassion is different from the left’s, more “hard-edged” – because “we understand you need to confront difficult reforms if you’re really going to raise standards in public services, in education, health care or policing. We’re prepared to make those difficult choices.”
He would, I think, agree with the American writer David Brooks, also a religious believer, who once said to me that: “Being a moderate does not mean picking something mushy in the middle but picking out the strong policies at either end, because politics is essentially about balance, getting the balance right.”
Hunt’s friend Simon Philips says: “Jeremy has ‘clear values’, the values of a kind of ‘Global Brit’. A very quintessentially British – and, dare I say it, Christian – set of values such as fair play, honesty, manners, kindness, standing up for what is right, etc, but overlaid with a real love and affinity for other cultures and countries and a real interest in global matters. It’s no coincidence he married a Chinese woman or that he was very involved on the ground in a charity in Africa or that he lived in Japan and goes on lots of crazy adventure trips all over the world.”
Philips believes we need a prime minister who can bring the people together. “Give the country its mojo back after this embarrassingly shambolic period. And as an ex-entrepreneur Jeremy is the man to do that! Speaking as an entrepreneur myself, I really do think we need those kinds of skills at the moment at the top of politics. Isn’t everyone now fed up with these career politicians?”
During our most recent conversation in his office at the Commons, Jeremy Hunt said: “I’ve been in government nine years. As a cabinet minister, you have to defend the government through thick and thin! But what I hope people can see is a common thread, which is I have actually tried to change things. I’m not someone who just wants to be in roles for the sake of it. I want to change things… But, you know, I’ll put it this way: what I’m really interested in is what people say five years after I’ve left a job, not when I’m doing it, because that’s the real test of whether you’ve changed anything.”
He returned to the all-consuming issue of Brexit one last time, adding: “I passionately believe our future as a democracy is at stake. Faced with the risks of Brexit and the risks of damage to our democracy, I would say you have to deliver Brexit and make a success of it. You have to accept Brexit, accept the reality and you have to move on.”
He delivered this peroration with burnished conviction. His message of accept and move on will be tested to breaking point in the upcoming Conservative leadership contest, for which Hunt and his team are exceptionally well prepared: they have the pledged support of more than 50 MPs (some have suggested the figure is closer to 75), plus the backing of several senior donors. He has good relations with hard Brexiteers in the cabinet, notably Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt, who is likely to run herself but could offer support to Hunt deeper into the contest. He dines regularly with Amber Rudd, who is being courted by Boris Johnson – whom Hunt’s team fear above all others – and he has the support of Patrick McLoughlin, a blue-collar Conservative who resigned as party chairman last year.
“Jeremy knows his platform and his message, which he is excited about. He knows where he stands on everything, he feels really good about the team around him,” I was told by a source. “He is in the zone. He is ready.”