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19 December 2018

Is Jeremy Hunt’s leadership bid doomed to fail?

Despite being the notional frontrunner, the Foreign Secretary’s reputation for dilettantism could leave him without an obvious base.

By Patrick Maguire

This morning’s Times carries as pithily brutal a summary of what a large number of Conservative MPs think of Jeremy Hunt as could be written.

Matthew Parris believes the Foreign Secretary, often described as a frontrunner to succeed Theresa May, “may be a hologram”:

“Just a hunch, but it’s a feeling you do get. Certainly Mr Hunt’s opinions appear susceptible to simply being switched off. A staunch Remainer appeared to twinkle among us when David Cameron was in charge, but that “Jeremy Hunt” has been blanked out and a new super-Brexity apparition is now shimmering under the same name at Christmas receptions. Oh I don’t know, maybe I’m imagining things but there’s something eerily insubstantial in all this luminescence. Has anyone tried poking a finger into the Foreign Secretary’s chest to see whether their hand goes straight through?”

It is characteristically unsparing stuff. What’s really striking is the extent to which – give or take a few degrees of eloquence – it is the exact sentiment many a Tory MP offers when asked whether Hunt could win a leadership race, or, perhaps more pertinently, their support in one.

Having backed Remain and then publicly flirted with running as the candidate of a second referendum in 2016, Hunt has since recast himself as a born-again Brexiteer. He said last Sunday that the UK would “flourish and prosper” if it left the EU without a deal.

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Some colleagues think it is all unsubtle triangulation and find it unconvincing. Others ask what the Foreign Secretary actually believes: a reputation for dilettantism is taking hold. In a crowded field that will not want for candidates of consistent conviction, these perceptions will matter – and could leave him without an obvious base in the early rounds of a contest.