— Foreign Office 🇬🇧 (@foreignoffice) September 18, 2018
In the aftermath of the EU referendum, with a Conservative leadership election looming, Jeremy Hunt supported a “Norway Plus” option for Britain. Today’s Sun reports that sources close to the Foreign Secretary yesterday say that he has “intellectual sympathy” with a Canada-style free trade deal. This seems to have been the case for some time, and he was certainly careful not to rule one out while broadcasting in the wake of Salzburg. Readers will remember that the Prime Minister was put in a difficult position last autumn when asked whether she would vote to leave the EU in a new referendum. (She stalled.) The reason why the question was being put to her was that the then Health Secretary had broken ranks to say that as a former Remainer he would now vote Leave.
Cynics will claim that Hunt’s change of mind just happens to coincide with the possibility of another Conservative leadership election, this time next spring, or even sooner. He will certainly be as aware as anyone else of the decidedly pro-Brexit views of Party members, who will have the final say in any contest – except in the event of a “coronation”, which is most unlikely to happen.
But ConservativeHome believes there is more to the Foreign Secretary’s shift than positioning alone. As his recent remarks in Japan reminded us – see above – he worked there as a young man teaching English. He has also married into the Far East, so to speak: his wife is Chinese. In a momentary lapse of concentration (to which none of us are immune) he described her as Japanese. To the Chinese Minister. Japan must have made an impression on him.
At any rate, part of the Foreign Secretary’s own story, plus his domestic circumstances, train him to gaze wider than Europe when he looks out at the wider world. He has been known to ponder the way in which Singapore and Israel built up their countries and economies relatively quickly and with few natural assets.
And to draw lessons from their experience: that what ultimately decides the prosperity of a country is the competitiveness of its tax rates, the balance of its regulation, the skills of its workforce, the condition of its universities, the robustness of its infrastructure – in short, its culture. In other words, not barriers, tariff or non-tariff. This take appears to be sufficently ingrained to resist the pro-Remain sympathies of parts of the Foreign Office.
But Hunt and other Cabinet Ministers will bide their time. Until the Conservative conference ends, the Government’s Brexit policy will be be shoved into the deep freeze. Theresa May will pretend that Chequers can still be the basis for a deal. And the Cabinet will pretend along with her.
No adroit member of it will want to make her position more difficult in the run-up to next week’s Tory conference – or to open himself to the charge that he is somehow giving cover to those dastardly continentals. We know about Schrödinger’s cat. We have also read about Schrödinger’s Brexit. In a twist on that theme, meet Schrödinger’s Chequers. Alive but simultaneously dead, it will remain in suspended animation until after Birmingham. If May doesn’t then pivot to Canada, and if the EU sticks to its guns, watch to see whether Hunt, and other Cabinet members, drag it from its box and finish it off.