Jeremy Hunt is UK prime minister in all but name. Liz Truss is nothing more than a spectre walking the corridors of power, occasionally wailing and clanking her chains. On Monday, she didn’t even take an “urgent question” — posed by Labour — on what on earth is going on, leaving the job to her former leadership rival, Penny Mordaunt. She also turned up late and looked miserable. Hunt is now both the public face of the government, routinely acting as its spokesman in parliament and the media. He is also its leading decision-maker, tearing up almost all of Truss’s budget and starting from scratch.
There are no parallels in British history. The nearest comparison for Hunt is Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank who was parachuted into power in Italy 2020 when Giuseppe Conte’s government collapsed.
Britain’s Draghi is the great survivor of British politics. He got his first Cabinet job in 2010 (as minister of culture, sport and digital), became the longest-serving health secretary (2012-2018), and served briefly as foreign secretary (2018-19) before Boris Johnson consigned him to the backbenches. He also ran for the prime ministership twice — once in 2019 when he came second to Johnson and then in the most recent round when he was eliminated in the first ballot. Until last week, it looked as if he was destined to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
His survival points to the power of two great political virtues: patience and toughness. Hunt has been patient enough to remain in Conservative politics even after his vocal support for remaining in the European Union in the 2016 referendum turned him into a marked man on the Brexit right. During his exile to the backbenches, he was chairman of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, a job he did with admirable restraint, pointing to the government’s failures without breaking with party unity.
Hunt’s emollient political manner may suggest a certain “wetness” to certain Tories — a description Margaret Thatcher used in the 1980s to deride internal party critics of her policies. That perception of weakness comes from mistaking stridency for strength. Hunt took on junior doctors in a high-profile fight over pay and conditions and then went on to run the National Health Service, perhaps the most difficult job for a Tory politician, for five long years. You can’t do that if you are anything but tough. When Theresa May tried to move him from health to business during a Cabinet reshuffle in 2018, he not only refused but negotiated an extension of his already enormous portfolio to include social care.
If British politics is a giant schoolyard, the Palace of Westminster is Hogwarts for people obsessed by political magic. Boris Johnson is a Flashman figure — a schoolboy who succeeded by breaking the rules and not giving a damn. Truss is an eccentric intellectual — the girl who reads Ayn Rand and says outrageous things. By contrast, Hunt is a head boy: a dutiful and responsible lad who gets on with the teachers and tries to bring order to the school. By all accounts he was an ideal head boy at Charterhouse before going up to Oxford.
His governing philosophy is a combination of One Nation Toryism — which emerged in the mid-19th century — and contemporary managerialism. He belongs to the responsible wing of the British establishment: His father Nicholas Hunt was an admiral and a knight of the realm; and his old school, Charterhouse, is a manufacturer of dutiful public servants in contrast to Eton, a training ground for flash boys. His heart has always been on the left of the party with its commitment to sound government and social reform. Though, to his discredit, he flirted with gung-ho rhetoric for a while to win over the Brexit right.
His five years at the NHS — the biggest employer in Europe — were marked by a commitment to managerial fixes. He spotted the extraordinary “variance” in performance between the best-run and worst-run hospitals and borrowed an idea from the educational sector (“special measures”) in order to put the worst performers on notice and force them to learn from the best performers.
But he was also a quiet revolutionary. Thatcher had reorganized the NHS into an internal market with “purchasers” (such as health authorities) “buying” services from providers (such as GPs and hospitals). Hunt concluded that this led to fragmentation and replaced the internal market with what he regarded as integrated services — or a “joined up” health service in the ghastly language of managerialism.
High up in the list of charges against Johnson for poor government is his refusal to bring Hunt back to front-line politics, either as secretary of state for health or as procurement tsar during the Covid crisis. That was a waste of his deep expertise and rolodex of contacts. I have no doubt that many more people would have survived Covid if Hunt had won the 2019 leadership race rather than Johnson.
Hunt’s most pressing task is to provide stability for a traumatized country and party — economic stability by ensuring that the markets believe that Britain’s fiscal policy is now responsible and political stability by showing he is now in charge rather than his next-door Downing Street neighbour. A growing number of Tory MPs argue that Hunt should be made prime minister formally while Rishi Sunak is returned to the chancellorship; others ask why the party needs to bother with further disruption when Hunt is really in charge.
Hunt can be compared to another figure apart from Draghi, who is after all the creature of a very different political system. That would be Tony Blair. It is hard not to think of the former Labour prime minister while listening to Hunt’s slick parliamentary performances and emphasis on stability. At least the Blair of the early years before he became an evangelist for democratizing the Middle East.
The two have the same commitment to professionalism, the same respect for experts, and the same humility in the face of global markets. The country has been through a carnival of policies since Brexit — from muscular nationalism to blue-collar conservatism to free-market fundamentalism. Britain has also seen a circus-worth of political clowns, not least Johnson. Perhaps the proper end of all this will be to return to early Blairism — stable policies championed by sensible men and women.
“Heir to Blair” may not be the best formula for winning over the right of the Conservative party — but that faction has forfeited any claim to influence thanks to the recent disaster. The country will undoubtedly vote for Keir Starmer and Labour if it doesn’t have a Blair on offer.