Monday 24 June 2019

The Tories Under Jeremy Hunt

Boris Johnson continues to dominate the news for all the wrong reasons. Following that bust-up he has come under withering fire from ... Jeremy Hunt. His pathetic refusal to answer straight forward questions from Iain Dale at the Tory party hustings in Birmingham on Saturday, and pulling out of a leadership debate scheduled for tomorrow evening has seen Hunt chide him for refusing to participate in a proper contest. This builds on Hunt saying "don't be a coward" to the frontrunner, and outperforming Johnson in the public perceptions stakes. That crashing sound you might hear are the wheels coming off the Bottler Boris bandwagon and careening into his polling figures.

This really wasn't supposed to happen. The whipping operation overseen by Gavin Williamson was designed to exclude Johnson's most dangerous rivals and leave behind the wet blanket. Yet here he is, the proverbial worm that turned taking Johnson to pieces and with the former London mayor giving off every impression he's running scared. It might not make any difference to the Tory membership for whom Johnson's well known weaknesses are priced in, but the spectacle of cowardice can be expected to do as much for Johnson as it did for Theresa May among the wider public. Would his spluttering work in a head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn? Does he think he could get away with wheeling out a lieutenant to fill in, as Amber Rudd did? And how would Johnson stand up to scrutiny from someone like Paxman or Brillo? The Tory party membership don't care, but if we're facing the prospect of a no-deal no-confidence followed by an early election then the electorate are likely to take a different view.

Johnson antics aside, let us for a moment think the unthinkable and imagine. Suppose the more the Tory membership see of Hunt, the more they like, and we get a situation in which he unexpectedly takes the crown. What kind of opponent for the Labour Party would Hunt make? It is true Johnson is an entirely known quantity whereas Hunt is less so. His tenure as Foreign Secretary has avoided the egregious blunders of his predecessor so far, and looking at the policy platform set out in his launch speech, Hunt has an inkling of the character of the crisis besetting the Tory party. He knows that the Tories have to appeal to young people, and so offers a menu of policies that, four years ago, would have got denounced by Dave and Osborne as Bolshevist-inspired. These include 1.5m new homes, cuts to tuition fee payments, aggressive action on clean air in the cities, more funding for schools and colleges, and a white heat of technology narrative about making the UK the new Silicon Valley. Not exactly stirring stuff, but it is a pointer in the direction the Tories need to go if their demographic crisis isn't going to kill them.

Nevertheless, policy for policy Labour has a superior offer on all of these, and whether there is an election this Autumn or we have to sit it out until 2022, the party can be confident in the strength of its manifesto. Though how the Tories will try and turn that into a weakness is something I plan on writing about soon. But back to the present, Hunt comes with his own stack of weaknesses. His record over the NHS is a recruitment sergeant of its million plus employees to voting Labour. Every scandal, every unnecessary death, every cut, every hospital and walk-in centre closure, he's on the hook and Labour will do its best to remind the public of it. However, while this could possibly managed - 2015 shows the NHS is no electoral magic bullet - more challenging is his Brexit position.

At last year's Tory party conference, he went out of the way to liken the EU to the Soviet Union. If there was any truth to such an absurd claim, Britain's dwindling band of tankies wouldn't be so enthusiastic about leaving. Yet, he's not a true Brexiteer. He campaigned to remain and is formally committed to leaving the EU with a deal. His "I'm prepared to leave without a deal" line is just puff for the Tory audience at home, but it won't wash. As something of a realist, as far as the degeneracy of the party goes at least, he knows a deal isn't possible by Hallowe'en and has said all along he would delay Brexit past then to get the best outcome. This isn't what the selectorate want to hear, so if somehow Hunt ascends to the top job his party is faced with an immediate crisis: a Hunt leadership would help the Brexit Party keep its momentum, and activists and perhaps a few MPs would throw their lot in with Farage. Sounding little different to Dave and the gormless suits we associate with pre-Brexit politics, it's difficult to see how Hunt can see off BXP and keep the Tory coalition together. Ah, but he'll have the centre right Tory remain vote, yes? No. Whereas Johnson has always been sharp enough to fudge and bumble his way through questions about no deal, before tempering them with the independent trading nation nonsense, Hunt has always been very specific about what no deal means. He knows it will be devastating to British business and the "entrepreneurs" he tediously identifies himself with, and has said he'd still press the hard Brexit button. The truthful answer is not always the politic answer, so good luck with keep the LibDem leaners on board.

In sum, Johnson is more polarising and eminently beatable. His electoral strategy is to appeal to no-deal leavers and hope this will give him a coalition just big enough to see off a divided opposition. And Hunt is on a trajectory to triangulate defeat by refusing to hold fast to the October 31st deadline, and going out of his way to say no deal is profoundly reckless and damaging, but he'd still do it anyway. The Brexit Party and the LibDems would have a field day. From an electoral point of view then, Labour couldn't have asked for a contest between two more self-destructive strategic positions.


SimonB said...

From my discussions with voters, Hunt’s perpetual smirk is as much of a vote loser as anything else.

Harry the Dog said...

I agree, he should give up smirking!

Worried of Croydon said...

I wish he'd give up breathing.