Fantastic support for #HastobeHunt today in Hampshire. Thank you especially to Members making the #SwitchtoHunt. If I am PM I will not let you down. Let’s deliver Brexit and send Corbyn packing! pic.twitter.com/7AEytcOIDb
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 3, 2019
“Wotcha!” The Foreign Secretary’s greeting yesterday morning was genial, but strangely reminiscent of The Sun’s famous “Gotcha” headline during the Falklands War.
We were hurrying along on the 8.24 from Waterloo to Alton, in Hampshire, and Jeremy Hunt, last encountered in the splendour of his official residence at Carlton Gardens, approached me from behind, and took me by surprise.
He followed up his one word greeting with an extremely firm handshake.
“Is this how British diplomacy is nowadays conducted?” I found myself inquiring. “At least you’re wearing a tie.”
“You aren’t,” he replied with a smile: an accurate enough observation.
This is not actually how British diplomacy is conducted. It is how Hunt’s campaign is conducted.
As the underdog, the man expected to lose to Boris Johnson, he has decided, understandably enough, that he must become as energetic and punchy as possible, while avoiding anything which could be construed as a low blow.
One of his advisers said that since the leadership contest has narrowed into a two-horse race, he has given 68 interviews to various news organisations, and Hunt himself repeated his view that “Boris should have had the courage to do head-to-head TV debates”.
He was on his way to address a gathering of at least 150 Conservative members, some of them holding HAS TO BE HUNT placards, gathered on the lawn at Chawton House, a beautiful manor house built in the 1580s and well known to Jane Austen, for it belonged to her brother, who provided a small house within easy walking distance for his two sisters and their mother.
Hunt decided that in order to address this throng, he would climb on to a spindly chair which had been carried out of the house.
“I’m just going to take the biggest risk of the campaign so far,” he said, placed a well-polished shoe on the red plush seat of the chair, and raised himself aloft.
The chair sank slightly into the lawn, but did not tip over. Hunt’s sense of balance was perfect. So was the weather, a peerless English summer day, and so was the surrounding park, the church, a hundred yards away, standing amid trees.
The candidate remarked that Hampshire “is the most beautiful county”, something he realised while flying over it in a helicopter as he returned to London from one of the hustings; but, he added with a smile, “painful for a Surrey boy to say”.
He observed that he would be the first entrepreneur to become Prime Minister, and asked how many people in the crowd had set up their own business.
An impressive number of hands went up, much more than a sprinkling. Hunt remarked later in conversation that this has been the case with every Conservative audience he has addressed during this campaign.
He declared that he wants to make Britain “the world’s next Silicon Valley”. He pointed out that he is “the son of a naval officer”, and remarked that he would be “the first Prime Minister who’s ever been responsible for the NHS”.
“I promise you,” he said, “that I will not take you into a general election until I have got more young people voting Conservative.”
That produced the first pronounced applause during his speech, from an audience which was not especially young.
He took questions. One of the first was about the maltreatment of Switzerland by the European Union.
“When I see the bullying of countries like Switzerland,” Hunt said, “that for me is the best possible reason to leave the EU.”
Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, hailed Hunt as “one of the only political leaders who has spoken about the crisis facing Christians in the Middle East.”
Hunt replied, “I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I try to,” and remarked that when he did, he did not have to “worry my life might be in danger”.
Another question, less friendly: “Your image in the country is a bit more of a grey man, a bit more Iain Duncan Smith, quiet man, John Major.”
Hunt in the course of his reply made another “first ever” claim: “I would be the first Prime Minister who can dance the Brazilian dance the Lambada.”
But, he added a bit lamely, he is “not planning to do any public demonstrations of it”.
There, perhaps, we see the weakness of Hunt. If Johnson could dance the Lambada, or thought he could dance it, he would find some opportunity to strut his stuff, the resulting video clip would go viral, Polly Toynbee would assure us this is going to turn off young people all over the country, but somehow he would cheer most people up, and would gain rather than lose from attempting something no sane Englishman would do.
Hunt cannot behave like that, and is admired for not being like that by those Tories who find Johnson embarrassing.
Elizabeth Cartwright, former Leader of East Hampshire District Council, said she had supported Hunt “from the beginning”, though “I toyed with Rory Stewart”.
Her husband suggested she had also toyed with Michael Gove, but she denied this.
She is implacably hostile to Johnson: “He’s a buffoon. He comes across as a buffoon. He embarrasses me.”
Hunt has become the anti-buffoon candidate. “I like serious people,” another woman who admires him said.
The Hampshire Tories received Hunt with well-mannered applause, like the applause one hears at Wimbledon. His reception was friendly rather than ecstatic. He is the respectable candidate.
On the train journey back to Waterloo, Chris Hope of The Daily Telegraph recorded an edition of Chopper’s Brexit Podcast with Hunt.
“I don’t know if you know this, Chris,” Hunt said with a smile, “but I actually set up a business.”
So Hunt can do self-deprecation. He is an admirably English candidate, a sensitive and prudent man who can be relied on to behave like an officer and a gentleman, and who fortifies himself with swigs from a bottle of Evian water.
“Boris is a great character and I don’t want to say anything against Boris,” he said.
He is in favour of fox-hunting, wants a Commons vote if there is any prospect of success, and would vote for it, but “I don’t hunt myself. It’s not particularly my thing. But I think it’s part of the countryside.”
He added, in a wry reference to his name, that perhaps one of his ancestors hunted.
When ConHome asked Hunt if his view of Boris “has improved or worsened as the campaign has continued”, he replied: “It hasn’t changed, actually, because the great thing about Boris is we all feel we know him.”
ConHome: “I think there’s something imponderable about Boris, actually.”
Hunt: “There is, but I’ve known him, I’ve worked very closely with him when he was Mayor of London and I was Culture Secretary. I’m probably more the unknown quantity than Boris in this campaign.”
Hunt is certainly less known to the general public than Johnson, but is, in principle, more knowable. He is a fine representative of his class, public-spirited, energetic, reliable, intelligent, a pleasure to deal with.
He is not as exciting or original as his rival, but not all Conservatives want a Prime Minister who is exciting or original. As he speeds round the country, he is bending every sinew to make this a two-horse race. We shall know soon enough whether he has succeeded.