If I was asked to sketch a typical Tory minister, they would probably look a lot like Jeremy Hunt. That probably means there’s something reassuringly establishment about JH which is doubtless settling a lot of the country right now after the financial shocks of the last few weeks. But who is the new chancellor? Look closer and he’s not quite the saviour Britain is hoping for. In fact, is he really just the thinking person’s Jacob Rees Mogg?
Jeremy Hunt is establishment to the core: son of a senior Naval Officer, Charterhouse School, PPE degree, chair of the Oxford Conservative Association, and after a decade as a publishing entrepreneur, to Parliament as MP for a safe seat in Surrey.
King of Austerity
Softly spoken, Hunt’s gentle, bedside manner might make you feel at ease but that certainly wasn’t the experience of the culture sector in 2010 when the Cameron-led coalition government began its austerity programme. As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport he had the smallest departmental budget but was big on ambition. There was to be no pushback and no delay. The cuts were hard and swift, sending Hunt to the top of the class for his effective hatchet work, lopping almost a quarter off DCMS spending with 800 libraries closing since 2010 and the loss of numerous local sports associations – despite being the department responsible for delivering the 2012 Olympics with its promise of a grassroots sporting legacy. All of this was a drop in the ocean of the financial crisis but a tidal wave of destruction at the local community level.
In rude health
The obsequious ‘class swot’ routine was rewarded with promotion to Health, a position he held for almost six years. That makes him the longest serving health secretary in political history, so let’s take a look at his rollcall of achievements in that time:
- Devastating and weaselly negotiation of the new junior doctors’ contract which left in its wake toxic relations between medics and government and a chronic lack of trust.
- An increasing staffing crisis caused by stagnant numbers of training places, lack of planning for the consequences of Brexit on numbers of foreign workers, and poor staff morale and retention.
- Woefully inadequate pandemic planning for the wrong kind of pandemic.
- Increased backdoor privatisation through outsourcing of easy-to-deliver services including over £2bn of contracts to Virgin Healthcare and disastrous building contracts with now- collapsed Carillion.
- Removal of the nurse training bursary in 2016
Hunt admitted a number of regrets in an interview with the BMJ last February – responses to that interview suggested that the need for a long-term strategy on staffing in particular should have come as no surprise. A decade after his tenure began, it’s still a case of hoping for storks to deposit a basket of fully-fledged nurses and midwives under a gooseberry bush.
Hunt then went on to what was judged to be a fairly successfully stint at the Foreign Office, although it was not much of an achievement given the low bar set by his predecessor, Johnson. But standing against ‘Big Dog’ in 2019’s leadership contest of course saw him out in the cold on defeat.
Public Jeremy No.1
As for voting, Jeremy Hunt is very much the company man. They Work For You documents his voting record as being in favour of cutting welfare, educational support and against measures to prevent climate change, higher taxes for the wealthy and greater devolved powers. Right on brand.
So there’s his record – and it’s not particularly encouraging. But what’s more alarming is the environment in which Hunt is now operating and how that reflects the way we may be minded to view him.
Hunt, the fourth chancellor in as many months, is being seen as the adult in the room, probably rightly in that he is intelligent and he’s more measured than the frenzied, ideologically-obsessive, bull-in-a-china shop politics of Truss, Philp and Braverman. But as with the Foreign Office, he steps up to a very low bar. Merely being eloquent enough to explain a policy in slightly different words in contrast to Truss’s minimal go-to phrases is not the same as being someone we want to see in charge of the economy (or – if rumours of the PM’s neutering are to be believed – the country).
Jeremy Hunt is slick and smooth and presents professionally, but listen to the content. He’s fully supportive of Truss’s rip-up-the-regulations growth agenda and as a clean skin he can introduce public service cuts – Austerity Mark II – under the guise of clearing up Kwarteng’s almighty whoopsie on the markets. He’s no saviour. At best he’s a throwback to the good old* days of David Cameron (*which weren’t actually good at all). Frankly, he’s little different to Jacob Rees Mogg – expensive tailoring, impeccable English manners but, beneath the polite veneer, a nasty-party libertarian.
The whole thing is resonant of the scenario in which a 90s popstar gets a starring role in Eastenders. It’s presented as a big splash, a bit of a coup, but in reality it’s just a case of rerunning the same old plotlines with someone who’s not a brilliant actor, and for that matter wasn’t that great a popstar, in a shabby bid to restore a faded image, distract from a tired script and generate some headlines.
And, personally, I’d rather be watching an entirely different programme, on another channel.