Jeremy Hunt lives in the wonderful house in Carlton Gardens where Boris Johnson used to live.
He sets out in this interview, carried out beneath portraits of Castlereagh and other great predecessors which adorn the Foreign Secretary’s official residence, why his approach to Brexit is better than Johnson’s, and accuses his rival of being “really defeatist” for implying “that we’re going to have to leave the EU without a deal”.
The interview took place on Friday morning, the day after Hunt came second in the first round of voting, and shortly before Johnson, the front-runner, agreed to participate in some of the television debates, though not in the first one, to be held on Sunday.
When asked about Sajid Javid’s attack on the old school tie, Hunt, who went to Charterhouse, joked that he would not criticise Johnson for going to Eton.
But Hunt added: “In Britain, we unfortunately still have the remnants of a class system, which I absolutely detest with every bone in my body.”
At the end of the interview, he quotes some good advice about the leadership race given to him by his seven-year-old daughter.
ConHome: “Are you the underdog in this contest?”
Hunt: “Absolutely, the underdog. I’m the anti-Establishment candidate who comes from the heart of the Establishment.”
ConHome: “Did either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor vote for you yesterday?”
Hunt: “I’ve no idea.”
ConHome: “You don’t know?”
Hunt: “I absolutely don’t know.”
ConHome: “Have you canvassed them?”
Hunt: “I welcome all votes. Each and every vote that I can get is most welcome.”
ConHome: “You’ve not saying you haven’t canvassed them, but you don’t know how they voted.”
Hunt [laughter]: “All votes are welcome!”
ConHome: “What do you want to say about the debates?”
Hunt: “We have got to have a proper contest with proper scrutiny. Lots of people feel that is what did not happen in 2016. I’m going to make sure this is not the 2016 leadership election.
“It is the 2005 leadership election where the underdog came from the outside, came second in the first round of MPs’ ballots, but then when you had the proper scrutiny, people started thinking about who they wanted to be the leader, David Cameron came through.
“So we’ve got to absolutely make sure that we have that scrutiny, and we cannot do that if the front runner hides away. We have got to have proper media questioning, proper involvement in all the debates. This is to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This is a big, big job, and we just need Boris to be a little bit more brave.”
ConHome: “You’re saying to him, ‘Come over here if you’re hard enough.’”
Hunt: “I’m saying, ‘Subject yourself to the scrutiny that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is going to be facing every single day inside Number Ten. Because if you’re up to this job now you’ll certainly be up to the job of taking part in some TV debates ahead of going in there.”
ConHome: “At one point it was said that you were unwilling to debate if Johnson wouldn’t debate.”
Hunt: “Well I do think that all the candidates should take part in these debates. I’ve always said that I’m delighted to do it. I will do it whatever. But yes, I wanted to try and do something that would encourage Boris to take part, and that’s what I’m calling on him to do today.”
ConHome: “On Thursday morning you tweeted, ‘Woke up this morning and felt a bit like the morning of my wedding’. Does today feel like the day after your wedding?”
Hunt: “Well I had a wonderful wedding. It was actually in the mountains of south-west China. So I felt nothing but elation and joy the morning after my wedding.
“And I’m very excited this morning. You know, lots of speculation that some of the other candidates who are running extremely professional and well-organised campaigns were going to overtake me, but they didn’t.
“And I’m clearly second-placed now to Boris, and ready to make the argument that we have better choices as a country than Boris is now offering us.”
ConHome: “On our figures, yesterday morning we had 74 people undeclared, roughly. Johnson took 30, you took seven, on our figures. You must have been a bit disappointed.”
Hunt: “In these campaigns, anyone who knows the way Westminster works knows there is always a front-runner bandwagon effect. And so I’m not at all surprised if people make the calculation that Boris is most likely to win that they flock behind him.
“That doesn’t mean they really think he would be the best Prime Minister. And that doesn’t mean they think he’s offering this country the best choices it could have.
“And he’s not. And I am.
“I’ve always said I’m willing to embrace no deal if that’s the only way to leave the European Union. But his hard stop of the 31st October means that we would effectively be committing to a no deal Brexit, or a general election if Parliament managed to stop it.
“And I think if we have a Prime Minister who is a negotiator we can get a better deal which changes or removes the backstop and allows us to leave the EU without the risks to businesses and the risks to the Union that a no deal Brexit could involve.”
ConHome: “Do you think you’re reasonably placed if some of the candidates lower down the order drop out?”
Hunt: “I’ve got lots of supporters who are lending their support to other candidates in the first round and have said to me that when their person gets knocked out they will come in behind me.
“But the argument I’m making is it’s not just that my vision of how we leave the EU gives us better options than Boris, but I’ve also got the experience that means I can deliver that. I mean I’ve been in government now, in the Cabinet for nine years.
“I’ve negotiated extremely complex deals, whether it was more funding for the NHS, the junior doctors’ dispute, the BBC licence fee. But I’m an entrepreneur by background. I did negotiation every day of my life before I came into politics.
“In my bones, I don’t think this is going to be easy, but in my bones, there is a deal there. And I want to get that deal for the country because I think that would be way better if we possibly can. In extremis, I’d leave without a deal, of course. We have to deliver the referendum result.
“We’re not at that point yet, and I think it’s really defeatist to say that we’re going to have to leave the EU without a deal, which is effectively what Boris is saying.”
ConHome: “You would serve under Boris?”
Hunt: “I would serve under Boris and I hope he would serve under me.”
ConHome: “Sajid Javid has made a lot of his state education. You would be the first Old Carthusian Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool, who held office from 1812-1827 and ran a big team including Wellington [gestures at the picture of Wellington on the wall].
“Is there too much class war in today’s Conservative Party?”
Hunt: “I am not going to criticise Boris for going to a posher public school than me [laughter]. You know, that is the politics of envy gone completely mad, and I’m just not going to go there at all.”
ConHome: “Javid was doing a lot of anti-old-school- tie stuff, which to me at least sounded a bit old-fashioned.”
Hunt: “In Britain, we unfortunately still have the remnants of a class system, which I absolutely detest with every bone in my body. But we are a country where everyone has a background of some sort, but what British people are interested in is what you’re going to do as Prime Minister.
“I think if anyone looks at my background they’ll see I’m someone who started a business from scratch, without any capital. I’ve faced massive challenges in my life, I was the longest serving Health Secretary, hardly the easiest job in government.
“They want to know, are you up for all the challenges, all the battles any Prime Minister has. And I think my background speaks for itself.”
ConHome: “Coming out of the traps fighting, aren’t you.”
Hunt: “Because I think that our country deserves better choices that it’s be offered by Boris Johnson at the moment, and I’m going to make that argument to the very end.”
ConHome: “Just on the Brexit policy and all that, you said in The Daily Telegraph on 27th May, ‘With the current deal, I cannot see a way forward.’
“So we want to be clear what you’re going to do with the negotiation. Is the whole deal dead? Are you dropping the Withdrawal Agreement, or are you trying to build on it?”
Hunt: “With the backstop as it is, the Withdrawal Agreement is dead. I believe that if you could remove the elements of the current deal that mean we could be trapped in the Customs Union indefinitely, it may still be possible to get a parliamentary majority for that Withdrawal Agreement.
“Certainly I think it would have been earlier this year. But to do that you’re going to have to rebuild the Conservative/DUP coalition, which is badly frayed, and that’s why I would have the DUP, the Scottish Tories, Welsh Tories, the ERG, in my negotiating team.
“So that we only put forward proposals that Brussels knows the British Government can deliver through Parliament.”
ConHome: “And you’re prepared to extend if necessary? That’s what you were saying earlier. You can’t treat this as a hard deadline.”
Hunt: “Any extension is highly undesirable. But it is impossible to know what situation you may be in on 31st October.
“A wise Prime Minister will make choices on the basis of the situation as it is then. We don’t know for example what Parliament might have done with the law around no deal.
“We don’t know who the new people taking over the European Commission are.
“If we got to 31st October and there was no prospect of a good deal that could get through Parliament, then I would consider no deal if Parliament had kept it on the table at that point.
“But I’m not going to get drawn about the choice I would make on that date when I don’t actually know what the real choices are. I don’t think any wise Prime Minister would do that.”
ConHome: “You did think aloud, actually it got you into a bit of hot water, about what would happen if the Conservative Party faced an election and hadn’t delivered Brexit – you used the word ‘disastrous’.”
ConHome: “Does that mean, you’re the leader, for whatever reason things go wrong and you can’t get what you want through the Commons, are you therefore, in that situation, doomed to lead a campaign that’s going to lose?”
Hunt: “Look, the one choice I will not make, and this is my absolute commitment, is that I will not lead the party into a general election or provoke a general election until we’ve delivered Brexit.
“We cannot go back for another mandate from the British people until we deliver what we promised we’d do in the last mandate. So that’s what I was talking about in terms of political suicide.
“And my concern about the hard deadline is if Parliament then blocked it, it’s not as likely thankfully after last week but it’s still not impossible, and there’s always the no confidence motion route, you could then be in a situation where the only way you overcame a difficult Parliament was to force an election, and I think that would be catastrophic.
“Because if you look at what happened with the Peterborough by-election, we were squeezed by the Brexit Party on the Right and the Lib Dems on the Left. Labour comes through the middle.”
ConHome: “The question isn’t whether you’d choose one or provoke one, which would obviously be a crazy thing to do. It’s could you win one if it’s forced on you.”
Hunt: “You say I wouldn’t choose one or provoke one, but the candidates who said they will leave on 31st October come what May are choosing one if the Parliament blocks it.
“Because in order to honour that promise, they would have to take measures to overturn what Parliament is trying to do.
“That’s why I’m saying it’s a dangerous thing to do to have that hard deadline. It might be the only way you can keep that promise is to get a general election in order to change the parliamentary arithmetic.
“If I was forced into an election, well I don’t want to go there, that’s not what I want, but I think someone who had tried hard to get a deal would be far more likely to get the votes of 48 per cent of the country who voted Remain than someone who hadn’t tried.
“And if you look at the polling I saw yesterday that said I am best placed to get votes from both Remainers and Leavers, because Leavers know I am absolutely committed to leaving, but Remainers know I am absolutely committed to do so in a way that is positive.”
ConHome: “Do you now regret that in your party conference speech you compared the European Union to the Soviet Union?”
Hunt: “The point I was making in that speech is one that I stand behind, which is that the EU was set up as a club of free countries to stand together in the face of Soviet totalitarianism and to maintain freedom and democracy in Europe.
“And therefore it is not appropriate for the EU to act in a way that makes it impossible for someone to leave a club of free nations. That was the point I was making, and I do think the EU needs to behave in a fair way in these negotiations.
“And I believe that if we give them the right Prime Minister, who is prepared to engage with them, but also negotiate with the toughness and the determination that we need, I think we can get a deal that is right for the UK and allows us to leave.”
ConHome: “So does the EU need a sort of Gorbachev figure?”
Hunt: “Well I think that if you talk to European leaders, they do understand that Britain is one of the oldest democracies in Europe, and we have to respect what the people have decided.
“And it has to be a deal that allows us the parliamentary sovereignty that we voted for, including leaving the Customs Union. So I think they do understand that.
“I think they have sincere worries about the Northern Irish border. And so given that we’re clearly not going to be able to address those through the backstop, we have to find another way of doing it.
“And I happen to think the technology-led solutions are the right ones. But if they’re going to be the right way forward, then we’ll need to find a way of dealing with the issues that happen when people disagree about what technology’s capable of doing.”
ConHome: “Can they be done quickly?”
Hunt: “I believe they can be. The EU believes they can’t be. So that’s why we need to find a mechanism to arbitrate when there’s a disagreement.”
ConHome: “Because the Steve Baker/ERG position seems to be that you don’t need new technology at the moment to make alternative arrangements work.”
Hunt: “Yes, and I think their arguments are very compelling on that. But, you know, if you’re going to sign an agreement where there is a disagreement about something as fundamental as whether the technology can work, you need a mechanism to resolve that disagreement.”
ConHome: “Just on that Soviet Union point, no doubt some of this is anti-Hunt propaganda, but what is put around is ‘oh well, we can’t have Jeremy because he’s already blotted his copybook with the EU by comparing it to the Soviet Union, and Tusk got very cross and the Poles were infuriated, so he didn’t really understand the complexities of the issue and all that.’
“What do you say to that?”
Hunt: “I think it’s a curious argument to make when my rival is Boris. But look, the argument I was making is that if the EU is reasonable we will be reasonable, and we will find a way to leave the EU which means we can remain good neighbours and the best of friends.
“And I think that’s what people in this country want. If you leave without a deal, which in extremis I would do, but only in extremis, you are making it likely we will have very difficult relations with our neighbours for generations to come, and, you know, I don’t think that should be our first choice.”
ConHome: “For the party, one of the choices near the heart of this leadership election is this. The Prime Minister is on record as having said a hundred times we leave on 29th March. We didn’t leave.
“She then said we should leave in June. We didn’t leave in June. She said having European elections would be unacceptable. They happened.
“Now throughout this you and the other people at the top of the Cabinet, you’ve done your duty and served on, because that’s what you do, you’re serious people and serious ministers.
“But some people would say the danger is you’ve now been tarnished by association with what happened. And with the Brexit Party rampaging around we need something new.
“And people are just going to look at Jeremy Hunt or some of the other candidates and say, ‘It’s more of the same’.”
Hunt: “You don’t solve a problem by walking away from it. And I have many profound disagreements with Theresa May.
“Over the course of the Brexit negotiations, I did not want to settle when we had the backstop in place.
“I didn’t think that it would get through Parliament and I was unhappy with some of its provisions.
“But in the end the choice people are going to be making is who is going to do the right thing for the country and give us the best possible choices.
“And with respect to the Brexit Party, Lynton’s own polling, which let’s be clear has been produced for furthering the interests of one particular candidate, says that the majority of Brexit Party voters will not come back to us, even if Boris is leader.
“The only way we deal with the Brexit Party is to Brexit.
“So the question is who the person who is most likely to get us a Brexit that allows the country to move on.”
ConHome: “When the Prime Minister sought at one point to move you from Health, you stayed on for a bit, and it’s said you drew a comparison with an admiral or a captain in charge of a ship who didn’t think it was right to go.
“People don’t ask you very much about your background. Did you pick up this sense of duty from your father? What did you learn from having an admiral for a father?”
Hunt: “Well, my dad did have a very big influence on me, he’s not with us any more, I think everyone’s father has a big influence on them.
“In my dad’s case he had a tremendous sense of duty, but he always believed in basic human decency. He always believed that people, even if they get to the very top of the tree, should show decency to everyone around them.
“So in a probably rather imperfect way that is something I try to follow.”
ConHome: “When did you decide to go into politics? You were politically active at Oxford, weren’t you, before you then went abroad.”
Hunt: “I got very interested in politics at Oxford. I was hugely inspired by Margaret Thatcher, who was at the height of her powers between 1985 and 1988.
“And I got active with the Oxford University Conservative Association. But actually what she inspired me to do was start my business.”
ConHome: “Had you contested a seat before you contested the one you won?”
Hunt: “No, and I was rather horrified when I was selected for South West Surrey, because I didn’t for a moment think they’d choose me. It was a highly marginal seat and I really put my name forward for interview practice, because I had no experience of politics apart from university politics.
“Then to my shock they chose me, and I suddenly had the battle of my life, with a very dug-in Lib Dem candidate, who’d been doing nothing but politics his whole life, and had reduced the Conservative majority to just 861 votes.”
ConHome: “Although your head was not above the parapet, you were a decapitation seat in 2005.”
Hunt: “We were the number three Lib Dem target in the country. It was a time when the Lib Dems were very strong and were doing very very well. They had posters all over the constituency saying ‘861 to go’.
“I have an amazing team of people in South West Surrey but I know what it’s like to knock on every single door.”
ConHome: “There have been so many policy pledges flying around in this campaign it’s been quite difficult to keep up with them. You’ve been quite limited, haven’t you.
“You’ve made the point about corporation tax. What else have you pushed?”
Hunt: “To make a success of Brexit we have to turbo-charge the economy. In a decade’s time the verdict of history will be that Brexit was a success if our growth outpaced our European neighbours, and Brexit is a failure if it doesn’t.
“You look at America, which has GDP growth double ours at the moment, through some very smart business tax cuts that Trump introduced, and I think you’ve got to do something at the point of Brexit that shows the world that we are absolutely determined to become the most pro-business, pro-enterprise, fastest growing high-tech economy in Europe.
“And so the big symbolic thing that I would do would be to cut corporation tax to Irish levels, 12.5 per cent, which is one of the very lowest in Europe and even in the world.
“I would also look at capital allowances and cut business rates. These are not populist tax cuts. These are to send a message to the world that we are going to land an economic jumbo jet on the doorstep of Europe at the point of Brexit.
“My second big pledge is that we also need to send a signal to the world that Britain is out there, we are reaffirming our global vocation, and so I’ve said we will increase defence spending to beyond two per cent of GDP.
“The two other areas where I’ve made pledges are education, where our national blind spot is the 50 per cent of school leavers who don’t go to university.
“And then the final one is, as a party, our strategic priority has to be young people. I think the single thing that jars most with young people is the interest rate on tuition fees. I cannot explain on the doorstep why someone should be paying six per cent interest rate. It’s just not fair and I think we need to address that.”
ConHome: “It’s not a very long list compared to some of the other candidates.”
Hunt: “No, it’s a simple list, and I’ll tell you why. Because I think I’ve learned in government you have to have a very short list of things that you’re actually going to change.”
ConHome: “What’s Mrs Hunt making of all this?”
Hunt: “Mrs Hunt is the first to admit that when we got married she knew nothing at all about British politics. I was actually an MP when we met, but she didn’t even know what that meant.
“So she has been on a learning curve. But she is the most competitive, driven person I know. She is absolutely determined for me to succeed.
“And she’s an absolutely incredible person. For me, the benefit of having a foreign wife is they sometimes have a sensible sense of perspective about the madness of British politics.
“My daughter said to me this morning – by the way this is a seven-year-old girl – I’ve got some advice for you daddy: ‘Don’t criticise your rivals. Copy their best ideas.’
“That’s not bad for a seven-year-old.”
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