Jeremy Hunt, as a would-be Tory leader. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

October 23, 2020   6 mins

Looking back on British politics in 2019, historians would agree that it was the Metropolitan Police who made Jeremy Hunt prime minister. In late June, with the Conservative Party leadership election down to the final two candidates, the Met issued a short press notice confirming that one of those candidates, Boris Johnson, was being charged with an offence of affray under the 1986 Public Order Act, in connection with an incident at the London flat he shared with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.

Johnson, accompanied by Symonds for an immediate news conference, categorically denied wrongdoing, accusing the Met of a “shameful attempt to subvert democracy”. Friendly newspapers screamed about “unelected Remain-voting police chiefs’ political correctness”. Hunt extravagantly proclaimed his support for his rival, but in a way that left the Johnson camp furious: “Like anyone else accused of a serious crime, Boris Johnson is innocent until proven guilty,” Hunt solemnly declared.

The Met dropped the charges in September 2019, leading to the resignation of Commissioner Cressida Dick. But, by then, Hunt had settled into the role of Prime Minister, having been elected Tory leader on — of course — a 52:48 result. Keenly aware of that narrow margin, and the argument among some that his victory was illegitimate, he went to great lengths to accommodate Johnson allies in his Cabinet: Dominic Raab got the Home Office and Priti Patel the FCO. The biggest surprise was not Michael Gove as Chancellor though. It was Lord Cameron of Dean’s return to Government as International Development Secretary. “We are one Consevative family governing for One Nation,” Prime Minister Hunt declared after his first Cabinet meeting.

But there was no place for Johnson, even after his exoneration: it was rumoured that he’d turned down Hunt’s offer of a new super-ministry for regional growth and industrial policy with the job of “narrowing the gap” between English regions. So that job went to young Rishi Sunak, while Johnson returned to the backbenches and writing lucrative columns finding fault with the new administration’s handling of the Brexit talks.

Such was Johnson’s detachment from government that there was even speculation that he would not seek re-election to the Commons when Hunt announced he would seek his own mandate from the electorate in a “battle of the Jeremies” general election in November 2019. Offered a stark choice between Hunt and Corbyn, Britain gave the new PM a majority, albeit a modest one. Labour clung on to several Tory target seats in the Midlands and the North, but the Tories enjoyed not just victory but the removal of every Lib Dem MP in England.

Back in office with a majority of just 40, many analysts predicted that Hunt risked becoming a posher John Major, picked apart over Europe by Tory rebels led by a reinvigorated Johnson.

That was the state of play in early January when the first reports came in of a human fatality from an unknown virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

“As a confident, global leader with first-rate businesses, scientists and technology, it’s important that we do everything we can to help our Chinese friends manage this virus,” Hunt told the Commons as he announced an offer of British assistance with the outbreak.

The ensuing debate was mostly focused on the fact that the Chinese had shown no interest in the British offer, with Labour MPs accusing the PM of using international affairs to distract from his own party management worries. The paragraph in Hunt’s statement about a Cobra meeting to consider the UK activating its own domestic contingencies got much less attention.

In the six weeks that followed, Hunt statements on “the coronavirus” became a common occurrence at Westminster, and saw him start to build a modest international reputation as a leader just about ahead of the curve on what was now recognised as a pandemic. Some Westminster cynics were surprised by what they saw as the transformation of Hunt into a gritty national leader: “It’s like seeing a Blue Peter presenter presiding at a funeral,” wrote one sketchwriter.

But close Hunt-watchers were not surprised, remembering his days in mortal combat with the doctors’ union over new contracts for junior doctors in 2016. Then, he didn’t back down, even though that meant playing the heartless Tory hatchet-man while white-coated saints condemned him. No 10 aides briefed hacks that this battle had taught him that taking the harder road can pay off in the end.

In late February, in a decision influenced by Cameron, Hunt stepped up his “national leadership” pitch by inviting Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth — but not his outgoing party leader, Corbyn — to join a new Cabinet subcommittee on the virus. The same invitation was also extended to the candidates to replace Corbyn, with Keir Starmer the first to signal acceptance. Hunt considered inviting Tony Blair to No 10 to discuss the pandemic, but instead settled for giving Blair’s old lieutenant Alan Milburn a cross-bench peerage and job at the Cabinet Office coordinating pandemic planning.

“Jeremy’s Big Tent politics” riled the Conservative Right, and gave Johnson more material for columns, but the polling data muffled the protests. Hunt went into March 2020 with strong approval ratings and a hefty Tory lead over Labour. That meant that when on March 5, acting in coordination with the government of Italy, Hunt announced a three-week national lockdown “to take control of the virus”, his decision was broadly welcomed in Parliament and among the public.

Yet that decision was also where the trouble began for Hunt. By the early summer, Covid-19 had killed more than 25,000 Britons and the British figures were better than those for Italy and France and broadly comparable with Germany’s. But the UK economy had fallen off a cliff and Hunt faced accusations of not doing enough to support businesses and workers; anxious about the public finances are wary of being accused of trashing the Tory commitment to sound money, he’d limited the Treasury’s new “furlough” scheme to paying just two-thirds of workers’ wages.

Worries about the economic impact of the lockdown combined with a touch of hubris to persuade Hunt to declare “victory” over the virus in late June 2020, a couple of weeks after New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern had declared her nation covid-free. “Britain is open for business again and we can now lead the world into the post-Covid future,” Hunt declared at a smoothly choreographed press conference at the Royal Festival Hall in London, where a slightly underwhelming line-up of British business leaders announced plans to reopen and rehire.

Oddly though, Business Secretary Sunak was missing from the event. No 10 claimed that was down to mundane logistics (“His helicopter broke down”) but party colleagues knew that Sunak had been spending more and more time in conversation with Johnson. Johnson himself was saying little, beyond columns in which he called for more Government spending to support the economy and the “British heartlands that have suffered so much this year”. He also made repeated appeals for Hunt to guarantee that the Conservative Party conference would go ahead in Birmingham as planned.

After a blissful summer of something like normal life, that conference took place as Hunt’s “victory” started to fray. Covid cases were starting to tick up again, prompting another Cobra meeting and talk of another early intervention from the PM.

But Johnson moved even earlier. His conference speech was packed with admirers ignoring the notional government guidance on social distancing, and his message was clear: no more restrictions. “My friends, I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that our admirable Prime Minister has used an industrial grade twin-cylinder tungsten steel power hammer to crack the microscopic nut that is this virus. And in so doing, he has shattered businesses, jobs and something even more precious, our ancient British liberties. I say, No More Lockdowns. I say it’s time to take back control of this country from doomsaying doctors and this gloombucket government. No More Lockdowns! Set Britain Free!”

Facing a resurgent Johnson, backed by the old Vote Leave machine and firing out barrages of three-word slogans, Hunt struggled to hold together the coalition he’d built for his safety-first approach to the pandemic. Tory grumbling about economics and liberty grew, but in the end, it was events inside the Labour Party that did for him.

With the virus returning in parts of the country, Hunt sought a series of regional deals with local leaders to agree new control measures, an approach that left him even more reliant on Starmer’s cooperation to secure local Labour buy-in. That bipartisan approach was to prove fatal to his leadership when the time came to agree a deal for Greater Manchester.

The beginning of the end of the Hunt premiership was Sunak’s resignation over the prospect of a north-west lockdown. The end came two days later with the striking spectacle of Johnson and Andy Burnham, side-by-side on a wet Manchester pavement in angry protest against what Johnson called the “pub-closing, job-wrecking, fun-crushing tyranny of the medical elite and their puppet in Downing Street”.

Burnham’s key contribution to the fateful press conference was to call Hunt “a Surrey millionaire sitting in his big house in London, making plans with his Westminster mates to send Northern businesses to the wall — including a Labour leader who should be standing up to him, not sucking up”.

From there, there were only a few short steps to a position where Johnson was installed as Britain’s fourth prime minister in four years, at the head of a Cabinet conspicuously lacking a development secretary following that post’s brisk abolition. (“Sorry, Dave old chum.”)

At his first PMQs in early November 2020, the new premier wished his predecessor well in his new role as British ambassador to China, and greeted Starmer with a cheery smile and a benediction: “May I wish him all the best of British luck in his own leadership contest against the estimable Mayor of Greater Manchester, Mr Speaker?”

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation