In Depth

Jeremy Hunt: who is the Tory leadership candidate?

The Foreign Secretary is squaring up against Boris Johnson in battle to secure top job in British politics

Either Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson will be the next prime minister of the UK, after 160,000 Conservative Party members choose their favourite from the final two contenders in the Tory leadership race.

But while Johnson, the favourite, has long been a headline-grabbing personality, his underdog challenger remains more of a mystery to most British voters.

Hunt has gone from failed marmalade exporter to holding one of the highest political offices in the UK as foreign secretary. Along the way, he has tangled with junior doctors over NHS reforms and embarrassed himself by forgetting his wife’s nationality. But just who is he?

What is Hunt’s background?

Now 52, Hunt is the son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt and a descendant of one of the pioneers of the East India Company, the private firm that helped establish the British Empire in India. The leadership hopeful was privately educated and receieved a first-class degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.

After graduating, he taught English in Japan, where he learned Japanese - a skill that has proved useful as foreign secretary.

According to an article from Broadcast magazine that has been reproduced on Hunt’s own website, he then “set up a whole series of businesses that flopped”. One of these disastrous venture was “exporting marmalade to Japan”, the magazine notes.

Hunt eventually struck gold with a venture he co-founded in 1996 called Hotcourses, which published a directory for people studying overseas. When he sold his 48% stake in the business, in 2017, it was valued at just over £14m, the BBC reported. 

That makes him one of the country’s richest politicians, having been elected as the MP for South West Surrey in the 2005 general election.

What happened when Hunt was health secretary?

Hunt first held ministerial office under David Cameron as culture secretary, from 2010 to 2012, and then served as health secretary until last year, when he moved to the Foreign Office.

Hunt was a controversial choice for the Department of Health post, as he had previously written a book calling for the NHS to be abolished and replaced with an alternative scheme. During his tenure, the coalition government reduced spending on the NHS to its lowest annual increase since the health service was invented.

Hunt also faced fierce criticism for capping pay increases for NHS staff and trying to push through a Conservative manifesto commitment to make the service available seven days a week.

So is he gaffe-prone?

The Guardian says opinion on Hunt is broadly divided into two camps: some see him as a cool operator, perhaps a little managerial. Others hail him as a “lovable lummox” – in part because of his reputation for awkward gaffes.

These include the time he tweeted a photograph of himself in an NHS hospital standing in front of a board displaying confidential patient data, an incident reported by media outlets including the Daily Mail. On another occasion, the BBC revealed how he almost hit a woman with a heavy brass bell that came apart as he rang it on a boat.

But Hunt’s most memorable – and most embarrassing – faux pas came shortly after he was appointed foreign secretary. On an official visit to China, he told foreign minister Wang Yi that his wife was “Japanese”. In fact, Hunt’s wife, Lucia, was born in Xian, central China, as Metro noted.

Although Hunt corrected himself immediately, it was a particularly embarrassing mistake given the long-standing enmity between China and Japan.

What about that awkward surname?

Hunt’s surname has been mispronounced on air, to unfortunate effect, by TV and radio presenters so many times that it is no longer notable. Indeed, linguists have been mulling over just why so many commentators have slipped up, reports The Guardian.

James Naughtie’s 2010 slip of the tongue on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is the best-known instance. The veteran presenter went into a coughing fit after committing the spoonerism as he welcomed then-culture secretary Hunt – and subsequently apologised to listeners after taking a 20-minute break.

Last week, Victoria Derbyshire became the latest presenter to make the awkward error, joining a long list that includes Nicky Campbell, Andrew Marr and John Craig of Sky News, says Metro.

Launching his leadership campaign earlier this month, Hunt addressed the issue. Asked if he was a “continuity Theresa May”, he said: “Anyone who knows what my last name rhymes with will know I’ve been called a whole lot worse on the Today programme.”

How big a threat is Hunt to Johnson?

For Matthew Parris in The Times, Jeremy Hunt is “patently serious”, in stark contrast to his flamboyant rival. “His stability, good character and essential moderation are not in doubt. Nobody can accuse him of recklessness, or of any failure of experience or political skill. He’s a negotiator. He’s safety-first man,” Parris writes of Hunt.

The Daily Mirror agrees that Hunt has a very different approach to politics than that of Johnson. The paper says: “While Mr Johnson flies by the seat of his pants, Mr Hunt is more of a details man.”

Rating the two men in various areas, the left-leaning newspaper decides Hunt as more of a “danger” than Johnson in only one area: public services. The Mirror notes that Hunt has previously described David Cameron as a “genius” for achieving “savage austerity cuts without sparking full-scale riots”.

However, while many view Hunt as a tough challenger, Fraser Nelson disagrees. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Nelson says Hunt sounds “more like a personal trainer than an opponent”, with his promise to put Johnson “through his paces”, and predicts an easy victory for the leadership front runner.

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