19 October 2022
by J.R. Thomas
Ms Truss, who walked through a door five weeks ago to find the sky on her head, must be wishing she… (bear with me, this is not Michael Gove again…) Wishing what? Well, presumably not that she could take early retirement and buy that idyllic thatched cottage in Devon, or she would have done it. But she must be wishing that she might yet wake up and all the past month or so turns out to be just a dream. It worked for Pam Ewing in Dallas, but alas it is not an option in British politics where the Conservative Party has ticked the box marked “Nightmare – Large Size”. So Ms Truss did not get the soothing option of sacking Michael Gove. Instead, she had to fire her Chancellor of the Exchequer, close supporter, and long time friend, Kwasi Kwarteng.
At least she did it for the best of all political reasons, to save her own skin (we refer readers to, yet again, Harold MacMillan, who one night in 1962 sacked his Chancellor and six other ministers after a slide in his popularity – it didn’t work). But what she did not have to do was to hire instead, as her new C of the E, the grey man of all grey men, Jeremy Hunt. What possessed her? Mr Hunt was the weakest contender in the recent Tory leadership contest, an uninspiring Health Secretary, a Remainer who refused to accept that Leave had won, a man without originality or new ideas or character. He is undoubtedly, in mien and appearance, the proverbial “safe pair of hands”. Smooth, calm, rather unctuous, the style and bedside manner of the old-fashioned type of GP is what he has. One who does not actually know much about medicine but whose gentle chat and soothing voice makes you feel better whilst you slip into a coma from which you will never recover.
Which is a very alarming analogy as it seems that that may well be the fate of the British economy as the Treasury officials, smiling gently, bring the new boss a plate of digestives “Just plain ones, Chancellor, we must make economies ho, ho, ho” and quietly revert to the well thumbed book of Treasury orthodoxy. Meanwhile, round at the Bank of England, it is chocolate oaties all round as the Governor grins broadly at the narrowly avoided threat to his reputation.
So the sun is shining once again and all is right with the world. Those madly dangerous policies of lowering taxes and risking growth are in the shredder and now Mr Hunt will be pursuing a strategy of helping the economy to just a little more of your money, whether ye be rich or poor, and quietly taking away a lot of that which you think you have paid for. So there will be cuts in public spending; everybody, says smooth Dr Hunt, will have to share the pain; and we will all have to pay a little more for it. This, he claims, is what compassionate Conservatism is all about, a little less in your pocket, a modicum of pain shared, and the state takes more and more of what you work so hard to earn. Not to put on your table, or even towards the gas bill, but so that the Man (and Woman and Person of Undefined Sexuality) in Whitehall can spend it more wisely on your behalf.
Mr Hunt has never held a Treasury job before in his somewhat undistinguished political career. He was educated at Charterhouse, a public school which is not Eton, and was at Oxford with David Cameron and Boris Johnson (of course) where he got a good degree and then decided to go into business. Early attempts failed (one cannot resist mentioning that one was exporting jam and marmalade to Japan) but eventually he and others set up an educational courses business which prospered and gave him financial independence. He became MP for a Surrey seat in 2005 and showed promising early radicalism by co-authoring a pamphlet suggesting significant privatisation of the NHS. Alas, he later denied that was what he meant.
He became a minster under Cameron, minister indeed for Culture, Sport, Media and the Olympics and possibly other things as well, the portfolio seemed so sprawling. In 2012 he became the Health Secretary which he remained for a remarkable six years, a tenure noted for minor controversy, little reform, ever increasing spending, and nothing much else. He was a prominent supporter of the Remain campaign in the 2016 Referendum, and having seen the result, called for a further Referendum, though in 2017 he announced that he was now a Leave supporter. In 2018 after Boris’s resignation from the job he became Foreign Secretary under Mrs May and tried to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and with China, and compared the European Union to the USSR. After May’s resignation Hunt stood in the Conservative Party leadership contest, with a financial donation from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, but gained only a third of the vote. He had another go in the leadership contest this summer but was eliminated with 18 votes in the first round.
If there is anything which marks Hunt’s ministerial career, other than ambition, and one can’t argue against that in a politician, it is that his experience has been in big spending jobs and he has had no Treasury or financial management experience. So why on earth did Liz Truss appoint him to the role he now graces? The Shaw Sheet likes to give you answers but here it can only leave the question bouncing round the room. We have no idea, and we can’t even make much of a fist at a speculation. He is not financially experienced, highly regarded in the party, loyal to Truss, a man of enormous and unwavering principals, a tough guy in bad weather, or anything else that might make him an impressive appointment. And it is not as though there are no other potential Chancellors available; indeed there are four ex-Chancellors all of whom are of some skill and experience – Messrs Zahawi, Sunak, Javid, and indeed Osborne, who no doubt might serve if asked nicely. (That is not including the unfortunate Mr Kwarteng who is undoubtedly a man of considerable intellect, if lacking some basic PR skills or perhaps a sufficiently cynical view of Treasury advisors.)
So why Hunt? The Treasury are pleased, the Bank of England is pleased, those legendary 300 economists who condemn any originally thinking by Treasury ministers (before a few years later saying that that was their position all along) are all pleased. But they are the very mob that got the economy in such a mess in the first place, so their delight should be our warning. Maybe Liz just thinks Jeremy will make such a mess of it that he will soon cease to be any threat to her Prime Ministerial position. The lady may indeed be a much deeper thinker than we suspected.
tile photo: collective commons released under an Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) licence