Funnily enough, MPs across the Commons were today very keen to welcome Jeremy Hunt to his position as Foreign Secretary and suggest that he might garner more praise from them than his predecessor. At his first departmental questions in the new role, Hunt also had to address one of the messes left by Boris Johnson – and explain what his priorities were for the aspect of the portfolio that Johnson resigned over: the EU. The priorities of a Secretary of State can often be divined from which questions he or she chooses to answer at these sessions, and which ones are farmed out to his junior ministers. Hunt answered questions on the mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran and Brexit.
When it came to the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe – which Johnson complicated further by suggesting erroneously that the British-Iranian mother had been teaching journalism in Iran – Hunt told the Commons that he was examining every option possible to help her. He added that he would travel to Tehran if necessary to make the case for her release and that of others detained in Iran. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has said his wife has a ‘big brother in the playground’ now that Hunt has taken over, and taking on the case as a priority is a simple way of Hunt making very clear that he is not like his predecessor.
On Europe, Hunt is quite different to his predecessor. He campaigned for Remain, but has said since that the most important thing is delivering a good Brexit deal, something he repeated in the Commons today. Hunt’s strategy so far seems to have been to say as little as possible on the controversial matters, such as whether it’s time to chuck Chequers. He continued with that strategy today, and dodged questions on whether cameras and number plate recognition software constituted ‘physical infrastructure’, which relates to the Northern Irish border. Instead, Hunt told MPs that ‘what we want is no physical infrastructure’ and that the government wanted to maintain the Good Friday Agreement. This won’t be such a simple issue for Hunt: he must know that making anything other than statements of the obvious on Brexit will alienate one wing of the Conservative party or another. And that’s a risk for someone like Hunt who fancies a shot at the party leadership one day, possibly as an opponent of the man he has succeeded at the Foreign Office.