William Hague is not noted for agonies of self-doubt. But the former Tory leader’s judgement, in his Telegraph column on which of Johnson and Hunt is best suited to lead his party and our country, was not a close run thing: Hunt is one of the most impressive ministers Hague has worked alongside, and might even avert what he sees as the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit; Johnson has made him laugh.
At a time of national emergency, Hague went for the least amusing of the two.
None of which will surprise Brexit true believers, because Hague has been saying clearly and loudly for some time that he fears leaving the EU without an agreement would make us considerably poorer and could precipitate the fission of Northern Ireland and Scotland from the UK.
So he was always going to favour the candidate, Hunt, who he thinks offers a marginally better prospect of a managed, orderly Brexit.
But the timing and clarity of Hague’s endorsement of Hunt is not harmless to Johnson and his team – because they fear the tide is moving against them.
According to one of Johnson’s more senior and respected supporters, the questions raised about whether he treats women with proper respect and has the powers of concentration and grasp of important detail necessary for any PM have been gnawing at the consciences of more Tory members than is evident from the adoration of him they manifest at hustings.
‘Right now I would say it is only 60:40 Boris wins’ says one veteran.
So there is more of a game on than would have been anticipated when Johnson won the backing of more than half of Tory MPs and Hunt fewer than a quarter.
And there perhaps is Hunt’s greatest handicap: when so many of the foreign secretary’s MP colleagues, especially the Brexit purists, seemingly lack confidence in him, the 160,000 Tory members will legitimately fear he would be a lame duck PM in the mould of his immediate predecessor.
Hague argues Hunt is far better placed than Johnson to command the fealty and respect of civil servants. But the numbers will be conspicuously stacked against Hunt when trying to command the loyalty and obedience of Conservative MPs.
Johnson may well be the more compelling candidate to be Tory leader and Hunt the more persuasive potential prime minister. Both jobs are fraught with perils because, as Hague concedes, the Tory party faces extinction at the hands of Farage’s Brexit party, and the UK could be literally dismantled by a poorly executed Brexit.
It fell to Vladimir Putin – of all people – to point out (in an FT interview) that it may not be healthy for the UK that a resolution of that appalling tension is being entrusted to fewer than 1 per cent of British voters, and only those whose love of party may exceed love of country.
Putin seemed to think he wins whatever happens. Which is not a cheery thought.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog.