With less than a fortnight to go before voting for the Tory leadership contest closes, few believe Jeremy Hunt is in with a shot of making it into No. 10. However, Hunt supporters were still hopeful that a game-changing performance in this evening’s BBC interview with Andrew Neil could turn things around. In the end, Hunt put in a competent and confident performance but the interview served as an unhelpful reminder of the candidate’s Brexit flip-flops.
Although the Foreign Secretary has been at pains of late to paint himself as a reborn Brexiteer willing to pursue a no deal Brexit in much the same way as his rival Boris Johnson, Hunt admitted that he could not guarantee the UK would leave the EU before Christmas if he became Prime Minister. Hunt would only say that he expected Brexit to happen by then – arguing that he was the candidate ‘being honest’ with the public:
AN: OK. Would we be gone by Christmas?
JH: As I say I’m not going to give you those commitments
Hunt’s previous record came back to haunt him. Neil pressed him on why if – as he had suggested in previous comments – no deal was such a disaster, he was willing to do it. Neil also asked Hunt why if the backstop was so problematic, he had decided to vote for a deal that included it not once but three times. Hunt was also pressed on his 2016 Tory leadership Brexit position when he suggested a second referendum was needed on the terms of the UK’s exit. He replied that a confirmatory vote was provided in the 2017 snap election – with a majority of voters turning to parties that pledged to take the UK out of both the single market and the customs union:
‘I said was that there should be in that article which I think was written a week after the referendum result, was that there should be democratic endorsement of the shape of the Brexit that we did, and that is indeed what happened.’
While Hunt remained calm in explaining the various evolutions of his Brexit position, in total the exercise served as a reminder that he is too easily accused of being inconsistent on the topic. Given that Brexit is the driving issue in this leadership election for many Tory members, it is unlikely to serve him well. Hunt’s main message to Tory voters was to not ‘vote with their hearts instead of their heads’. He said that the ‘quickest way’ to leave the EU is ‘to send to Brussels a prime minister who can negotiate a deal that will get through Parliament – and I’m that person’. However, the sheer number of Brexit pivots that were dredged up means that rather than reassurance, the interview will have likely planted seeds of doubt over his sincerity on the issue.