Would Rishi Sunak really be bold enough to get rid of Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor when parliament returns in September? That’s the rumour swirling around a deserted Westminster, as politics grinds to a halt for the summer recess and news-starved politicos scramble to find something to gossip about.
A reshuffle of some kind is inevitable, after Ben Wallace announced last month that he would be standing down as Defence Secretary as soon as a successor was chosen, and would not fight the next election. Indeed, many expected Sunak to act before parliament went into recess, rather than expose his government to weeks of conjecture. Today, that conjecture takes the form of a report from the Daily Mail’s Jason Groves, who goes through potential reshuffle scenarios and reveals that “senior aides have even discussed whether to replace Jeremy Hunt, who has done nothing wrong, but who will have been around at the top of government for a very long time by the next election”.
The case for axing Hunt isn’t just about his long tenure as a minister (although he has been in the cabinet for ten of the 13 years since David Cameron entered Downing Street in 2010, serving under four Tory prime ministers). It is becoming increasingly obvious even to the most optimistic Conservatives that the polls do not bode well for them. The brief spike in support Sunak enjoyed at the start of the year simply by virtue of not being Liz Truss quickly evaporated. Labour went into the recess ahead of the Tories by 17 points and leading in terms of public sentiment on every major issue, including handling of the economy, and even if Keir Starmer’s personal approval rating is pretty mediocre, he still beats Sunak.
That’s not all Hunt’s fault, of course. (Indeed, his supporters point out that the Tory fortunes were looking even worse before he was summoned to the Treasury to replace Kwasi Kwarteng, making 2022 the Year of the Four Chancellors). But the reasoning goes that if Sunak is to have any hope at all of turning around his party’s fortunes, he needs to be radical. He needs more energy in his top team: fresh blood, bold ideas, new faces not tainted by the Tories’ 13-year record. For those on the right of the party especially, such bold ideas inevitably centre around eye-catching tax cuts that will tempt a grateful nation back to their side before the looming election.
The other reason Sunak might be flirting with the idea is more personal. While he and Hunt have largely been aligned on the economy, with both understanding that the priority must be slashing inflation, however painful it is, we should not forget that Hunt wasn’t actually Sunak’s pick. The PM inherited his Chancellor from the dying days of the Truss era, when Hunt was parachuted in to rescue an economy in free fall. Whether or not Sunak preferred someone else is irrelevant: removing Hunt, who was just managing to calm the exceedingly jittery markets, when he became Prime Minister in October wasn’t an option. Reshuffling him out now and giving the job of delivering the last Budget before the election to someone Sunak has chosen himself would be a serious power move for a PM fending off charges of being weak.
The obvious question, however, is who. And at this point, the logic for getting rid of Hunt dissolves. There are no clear contenders for the job, no one who would bring the required mix of energy and ideas while also exuding the kind of competence necessary to prevent accusations of chaos. A tax cut-touting free marketeer might delight the grumbling right of the party but would look utterly reckless at a time when inflation is still high and the top voter priorities are the cost-of-living crisis and failing public services. Promoting one of the Treasury ministers is a safe option, but none of them have the sort of name recognition or followings that would justify removing Hunt. Michael Gove’s name is occasionally mentioned as a possibility, but he comes with two issues. First, he is hardly a fresh face, having been circling around the top tiers of government for as long as Hunt. And second, with his reputation for behind-the-scenes manoeuvres and machinations, he could threaten Sunak’s authority far more than Hunt ever could.
Essentially, Sunak would face an unenviable balancing act. Pick someone too malleable or unknown and he looks insecure; pick someone too powerful and recognisable and he risks being overshadowed. And either way, choosing a new chancellor would deepen existing rifts in the party he is desperately trying to hold together.
The final problem is one not of personnel but of practicality. Whoever is chancellor, to say that the economic outlook remains challenging is an understatement. Yes inflation is finally falling and yes there is optimism ahead of next week’s GDP figures – but mortgage rates are at their highest level since 2008, households budgets are being squeezed as never before, and the message from the government is that there’s no cash left to spend. Sunak knows he doesn’t have the option of a wild spending spree or tax-cutting bonanza right now and it would be senseless to pick a chancellor who disagreed, meaning any replacement for Hunt would quickly find themselves criticised for continuing the present misery. It would cause immediate panic, potentially spooking the markets again – for very little electoral benefit.
It’s hard to see how Sunak could replace his Chancellor without making things much worse for himself. The Prime Minister could still decide to roll the dice if the economy improves and his advisers can convince him there’s a star contender who could help him win back voters more successfully than “Theresa May in trousers” (as Hunt is nicknamed by colleagues). But Sunak is not exactly known for his recklessness – and there seems far more to lose from a blockbuster reshuffle in September than there is to gain.
[See also: When should Rishi Sunak call a general election?]