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Is Jeremy Hunt Johnson’s most dangerous Tory rival?

As Hunt hints at a second leadership bid, he may emerge as the viable alternative many Conservatives are looking for.

By Harry Lambert

There is a scattering of political news today – from the fate of the Northern Ireland protocol to perennial talk of civil service cuts, newly briefed to the tabloids – but the most notable story is perhaps in the Times, where Jeremy Hunt, comprehensively defeated by Boris Johnson in the Tory leadership contest three years ago, has floated his continuing interest in becoming prime minister, and lightly admonished Johnson’s leadership in doing so: “I do think that we would be wrong to say that the setbacks the Conservative Party have are just mid-term blues, and there’s a big mountain to climb to win the next election.”

Andrew emphasised earlier this year that Hunt could re-emerge as Johnson’s leading challenger, at a time when many suspected Rishi Sunak was a shoo-in to replace Johnson in No 10. One prominent rebel MP has been stressing Hunt’s credentials to journalists recently, and suggests that Hunt would “do far better” among MPs than he did during the leadership election in 2019, when he only narrowly beat out Michael Gove to face Johnson in the run-off voted on by party members (it is suspected that some Johnson supporters voted for Hunt to keep Gove out of that contest).

Hunt’s politics are a curious mix. He is economically on the right – and stressed the importance of tax cuts to the Times – but he is a moderately tempered man, a former head boy (Charterhouse) and “a serious player for serious times”, as the supportive MP puts it. Hunt oversaw the NHS for six years as health secretary and served as foreign secretary for a year under May, when we profiled him in our pages. He spent all nine years of the Cameron and May premierships in the cabinet.

I mention this because the Tory party often defaults to its more credentialed senior ministers when picking a new leader. Johnson served two terms as London mayor, May spent six years as home secretary and Cameron – the exception – won in 2005 by defeating an older rival in David Davis, but an almost equally inexperienced one: Davis had not then served in cabinet. I suspect Hunt’s experience may give him the edge among MPs over Tom Tugendhat, his most likely rival candidate for the votes of Tory centrists.

Such speculation presupposes Boris Johnson’s downfall and a leadership contest in the near future. As I discussed last week, there is nothing to suggest that is likely any time soon, but Johnson’s government is already losing authority in subtle ways. We have reached the stage where No 10’s policies are being pre-emptively watered down to satisfy backbench MPs, as on planning reform.

If “the role of prime minister has but one constitutional requirement, that the holder can command a majority in parliament”, as Robert Shrimsley wrote a few years ago, then Johnson’s standing is already eroding: when his backbenchers’ interests clash with No 10’s, Johnson is avoiding the fight. Such weakness only emboldens his erstwhile rivals to offer the tentative outlines of an alternative future.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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