The most notable thing about this year’s Conservative conference is the disconnect between the leadership and the members. This afternoon the fringes have been ram–packed – particularly those with Brexiteers. Meanwhile, the hall and its ministers has at points seemed rather empty.
So, perhaps it makes sense then that rumoured leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt used a large part ofspeech to play up his Brexit credentials. In his first conference speech as Foreign Secretary, the reformed Remainer covered a wide range of topics – and talked tough on Europe. He compared the EU to the ‘prison’ of the Soviet Union as it tries to prevent member states from leaving. He said Brussels would be wrong to reject the ‘hand of friendship’ offered by Theresa May and promised that the UK would ‘fight’ if the EU fails to compromise:
‘If you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don’t crumble. We fight.’
But he risked antagonising the (original) Tory Brexiteers by arguing that party division could lead to ‘no Brexit at all’.
The other thing Hunt’s speech was notable for is the fact he mentioned both Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. As James observes on today’s Conference Coffee House Shots podcast, the numerous mentions of previous leaders suggests Hunt has ambitions beyond his current brief. It’s true that Hunt certainly set his sights beyond pure foreign policy. Talking about British success, Hunt spoke movingly about British exceptionalism:
‘The real reason for our success goes beyond … anything tangible. It’s because of a few simple ideas that started here, on this small island, and went on to conquer every corner of the planet.
One of those simple British ideas was free trade, a stroke of genius that was written into life by Adam Smith in Glasgow and exported across the seas by the Royal Navy.
Another British idea was the fragile and beautiful insight that power should pass from leader to leader not by force, but peacefully through a franchise expressing the will of the people.’
It follows that Hunt’s fighting spirit this afternoon will raise questions in the Tory party as to his real intentions.