Boris Johnson once said his favourite movie scene is the “multiple retribution killings at the end of the Godfather”. It didn’t take long this week for the prime minister to exact revenge on his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt.
The mild-mannered Hunt, who ran against Johnson in 2019, is still eyeing Number 10 and this week urged fellow Conservative MPs to rise up against Johnson, because the party was “not giving the British people the leadership they deserve”.
The prime minister survived a subsequent vote of no confidence by 211 to 148 votes on Monday, but was left badly wounded. Hunt, a former foreign secretary, would be the “anti-Boris”: managerial, immaculately suited, a bit dull.
Some in Johnson’s circle pondered whether the premier might try to hold his enemy close, possibly offering Hunt the role of chancellor of the exchequer. But most laughed at the idea: it’s not Johnson’s style.
Instead, Hunt was summarily informed that Johnson had approving drilling for hydrocarbons in his bucolic South West Surrey constituency, a decision that left the environmentalist spluttering: “Ridiculous.”
The prospect of the village of Dunsfold becoming a minor Home Counties Dallas has provoked local apoplexy and is a gift to Hunt’s challengers for the seat. That is unlikely to bother Johnson.
Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt, 55, has been on Johnson’s tail for several years, convinced that at some point Tory MPs will tire of the prime minister’s chaotic style. Hunt would be the man to pick up the pieces.
But some wonder whether he wants the top job enough. Colleagues have urged him to campaign more aggressively: “In politics, power is not given, it’s taken,” says one ally.
After Monday’s coup narrowly failed, Hunt kept his head down. “Jeremy believes the party will make up its own mind without needing any help to do so,” one supporter says. “Jeremy says he is not a natural destabiliser and probably wouldn’t do it very well if he tried.”
Son of a senior Royal Navy admiral and raised in a picturesque Surrey village, Hunt has classic establishment credentials: head boy at the expensive Charterhouse school, followed by a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford university.
He became an entrepreneur and taught English in Japan for two years; his early business ventures included a failed attempt to export marmalade to the country. His wife, Lucia Guo, is Chinese, although he made a “terrible” gaffe when on his debut visit to Beijing as foreign secretary he described her as “Japanese”. The couple have a son and two daughters.
Eventually, he set up Hotcourses — which runs listings websites for education worldwide — in the 1990s. He met Guo at a Hotcourses event at Warwick university and when the company was eventually sold in 2017 he made £14mn.
Elected in 2005, he fitted neatly into the mould of David Cameron’s new-look Conservative party. Rightwing on economics — one ally says Hunt is “a proper Thatcherite” — he was socially liberal and embraced green issues.
He became culture secretary in Cameron’s first cabinet in 2010, with oversight of the 2012 London Olympics, before ascending to the job of running Britain’s health service in an era of austerity. It was a daunting political challenge, but he went on to became Britain’s longest-serving health secretary. Along the way he picked up enemies in the NHS — notably after moves to change doctors’ contracts to address the problem of high weekend death rates.
Nadine Dorries, culture secretary and a Johnson loyalist, this week claimed that Hunt had left the NHS unprepared for Covid and when the virus hit he advocated tough China-style lockdown measures. “Your handling of the pandemic would have been a disaster,” she said. Since leaving the cabinet his role as Commons health committee chair gives him a continuing voice on the NHS problems that still preoccupy him.
Hunt campaigned for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum but then — somewhat implausibly — declared a year later that he thought Brexit was a good idea after all, having witnessed the “arrogance” of the European Commission in exit negotiations.
It was a clear sign he was preparing for a run at the top job in a party where being pro-Brexit is now essential. After becoming foreign secretary in 2018 under Theresa May — replacing Johnson, who stormed out over May’s proposed Brexit deal — he had the ideal platform.
May’s resignation a year later saw Hunt go head-to-head with Johnson to become prime minister. At hustings with party members, his smooth technocratic style contrasted with Johnson’s erratic populism.
But there was a problem. “Every night you’d come away thinking Jeremy had won the debate, but the next morning people couldn’t remember anything he said,” admitted one figure in his leadership campaign. In the end, Johnson had a decisive win.
Johnson offered the defeated Hunt a job in his cabinet as defence secretary, a demotion. Hunt refused. “He thought the whole government would come crashing down and he could swoop in and say ‘I told you so’,” said one ally. Others were furious. “Running the army, navy and air force is never a job you turn down, especially not in the Conservative party,” said one former cabinet minister.
Admirers say Hunt is right to avoid campaigning for a job when there is no vacancy but that behind the calm, polite exterior is a man with ambition. “He’s got an inner steel, he’s tough,” says one.
Some Tories, particularly those representing seats in northern England that Johnson conquered in the 2019 election, believe the very southern Hunt would be an electoral liability. “He’d be a disaster,” says one northern Tory MP. “He can’t communicate with my voters.”
But Andrew Mitchell, former Tory chief whip, says Hunt would ultimately triumph because Tory MPs want three things in a new leader: “Someone untainted by Boris, someone with significant experience of government and someone who is clearly moral.”