Since the implosion of Rishi Sunak, the position of Tory leader-in-waiting has been vacant. But nature abhors a vacuum — and this particular void is beginning to fill with Jeremy Hunt.
The man himself is refusing to rule out standing in a future leadership contest. Commentators, like Harry Lambert in the New Statesman, emphasise his nine years as a Cabinet minister. Then there’s his ever-so-slightly prim public image, which currently stands in helpful contrast to Boris Johnson’s.
Hunt was on the Remain side during the Brexit referendum campaign, but the same was true of Theresa May, which didn’t stop the Tories from choosing her when they found themselves short of a Prime Minister. Should they find themselves in the same position before the next election, then Hunt is in with a chance.
In the event of a contest, it’s likely that several serving ministers would put their names forward too. Liz Truss, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab and Nadhim Zahawi are among those who might give it a go. However, it’s telling that not one of these ministers — not even Truss — has emerged as a replacement front-runner.
In fact, there hasn’t been a leadership race this open since 2005 — when Ken Clarke, David Davis, Liam Fox and David Cameron were all contenders. Of course, back then, the Tories were in opposition and a leadership contest had been officially declared. Therefore each candidate had a formal opportunity to set out their wares. Especially important were the speeches made by each man at the party’s annual conference that year: Cameron wowed his audience, Davis did not, Fox did OK and Clarke gave what sounded like valedictory address. The dynamics of the race were transformed, putting Cameron on the path to power.
Could a speech make all the difference this time round? For most of the possible candidates, the opportunities are limited — the Conservatives are in government and Tory ministers bound by collective responsibility. Furthermore, there’s no official contest — and no guarantee that Boris Johnson will be deposed as Prime Minister.
Of all the names I’ve mentioned, only Jeremy Hunt is free to speak his mind. But so far, he’s only nibbled around the edges of his big opportunity — for instance by publishing his book on the NHS. And perhaps this illustrates the paradox of Hunt: he might be seen as the anti-Boris — calm, measured, and sensible — but it is also those qualities that failed to excite the Conservative base when he first stood for leader in 2019. Whether the next leadership contest will be any different remains to be seen.
As David Cameron said in 2005, “we can change this party and we can change this country, but we need the courage to do it.” Which Tory candidate, if any, will step up?