‘What you can see is someone who has the instincts of a Brexiteer, but the cautious pragmatism of a Remainer, which is where I think the British people are.’ This is how Jeremy Hunt tried to sell Theresa May’s leadership on the Andrew Marr sofa this Sunday. After a choppy few weeks for No. 10, the Health Secretary made clear that he felt May was still the right person for the job of Prime Minister.
Perhaps it’s just pure coincidence then that one could also substitute Hunt’s name with May’s in that endorsement. Like May, Hunt is a Remainer turned Brexiteer. A point he also proved on Sunday when he said that Airbus’s Brexit ‘threat’ over potential loss of jobs was ‘inappropriate’. The blunt comments were surprising given that Hunt was once seen as mild-mannered.
All of which is prompting Conservative MPs to ask: what is Hunt up to? Although a lot of (often negative) attention has been on Gavin Williamson’s leadership ambitions of late, were there a leadership election tomorrow – as we discuss on today’s Coffee House Shots podcast – the frontrunners would more likely be Hunt, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove:
Right now there is no vacancy but as one senior Tory recently told Coffee House: ‘patience is wearing thin’. There is some talk of a move being made against May once Britain has formally left the EU. This of course could – like many threatened Tory rebellions – be all bluster.
Still, Hunt is certainly wasting no time in his current brief. Earlier this month, he became the longest serving Health Secretary in history and marked this achievement by getting May to commit to a £20bn funding package for the NHS. His next focus is to come up with an answer to social care. Would this give him the required achievements to go for the leadership? Perhaps. But there’s still a few small problems he would need to overcome.
Just as with May the last time around, Hunt is seen as a unifier in the Tory party who generates little ill will. However, some critics regard him as wet – one cabinet minster tells me that if he were to go all the way and become prime minister, he would resemble a cross between Ted Heath and Harold Macmillan. Another Tory MP makes the approaching unkind point that his widespread appeal among MPs could be down to mediocrity; ‘Why would we go to all the bother of getting rid of Theresa May to replace bland with bland?’
Join Jeremy Hunt in conversation with Andrew Neil at the Emmanuel Centre on 28 June. Click here to book.