It’s a new year, a new dawn, a new day – and for many Brits a fresh start. Unless you’re Theresa May. The Prime Minister begins 2019 with things much the same as they were in 2018. Her party is at war over Brexit, she still has a hugely unpopular piece of legislation to pass and her rivals are circling – attempting to boost their appeal to the Tory membership in anticipation of an eventual leadership contest.
After a briefing war between No.10 and the Home Office over the Christmas period – which saw details of leadership frontrunner Sajid Javid’s luxury holiday wind up in the papers – it’s now the turn of Jeremy Hunt to cause a stir. The Foreign Secretary is in Singapore flying the flag for Global Britain. In a speech, Hunt said the UK could act as an ‘invisible chain’ linking democracies across the world (though some are questioning whether the countries Hunt has in mind are really democracies in the purest sense). Hunt has also used the trip as an opportunity to praise the country’s economic model.
In an article for the Mail on Sunday, he praised the low tax haven – suggesting the UK could take inspiration from it as the country leaves the EU: ‘When Singapore became an independent country in 1965, its leaders described it as the moment it ‘plugged into the international economic grid’. This has been read by Hunt’s rivals as an attempt to woo Brexiteers to his cause – given that many Leave MPs have argued that Britain could emulate Singapore, and its low rates of corporate and income tax, to become more competitive after Brexit.
However, were that the intention it may have backfired. Hunt’s comments haven’t landed entirely well with his colleagues. Given that Hunt is regarded as one of the biggest spenders within Cabinet, his call for a low tax economy has raised eyebrows. Colleagues are quick to point out that when Hunt was Health Secretary he was responsible for securing a £20bn NHS cash boost – even suggesting that the public would be in favour of a special NHS tax to pay for it. It was something the Treasury balked at at the time and fought to reduce. ‘Leadership ambitions do interesting things to people,’ snipes a colleague.
While Theresa May is technically immune from challenge for a whole year after surviving a confidence vote last month, she has also now promised not to lead the Tories into the next election, should it be in a couple of years time. It follows that 2019 is shaping up to be a long leadership parade.