Next Conservative leader must ‘believe in Brexit’
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt just one of several ministers with an eye on top job
Jeremy Hunt: ‘The democratic risk of no Brexit ultimately is higher than the economic risk of no deal.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, was cheerfully self-deprecating as he addressed a political journalists’ lunch at Westminster on Thursday, taking his audience through his long catalogue of gaffes. These included the time he described his Chinese wife as Japanese, which he said was a result of getting his notes for small talk with China’s foreign minister mixed up.
But on his ambition to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader, he said “wait and see”, suggesting that such speculation was unseemly. “I don’t think it’s the time to be talking about Prime Minister Hunt because we’ve got Prime Minister May,” he said.
But he was quick to reject the idea that the next Conservative leader must be someone who had voted for Brexit in 2016, saying that it should be someone who “believes in Brexit”, as he says he does.
May promised last month that she would step down in time for a new prime minister to take charge of the next phase of Brexit negotiations. But backbenchers became restless when Downing Street suggested that, since the next stage of the Brexit talks could not begin until the withdrawal agreement was ratified, her departure would have to wait.
This week, the backbench 1922 committee rejected a proposal to allow May to face a confidence vote as early as June by changing the rule that made her immune from a challenge for a year after she won a confidence vote last December. But the committee asked the prime minister to outline a clear “road map” for her exit to reassure backbenchers that she was not planning to squat in Downing Street until the end of the year.
Hunt is one of a number of ministers whose leadership campaigns are already under way but a Conservative Home poll of party members last week identified Boris Johnson as the runaway favourite. When May announces her resignation, Conservative MPs will choose two candidates to go before the entire party membership in a postal ballot.
At least one of the two candidates is likely to be a hard Brexiteer and Johnson’s strongest rival in that lane is former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. Although Johnson is viewed as unbeatable if he gets on to the ballot, his unpopularity among MPs means that he is not guaranteed to be one of the two candidates.
Raab is a less appealing and less well-known candidate who could prove vulnerable if his record is subjected to intense scrutiny. This means that an alternative candidate promising responsible and competent leadership could emerge as the winner.
Hunt is the leading candidate of the centre but he knows that he must demonstrate his credentials as a born-again Brexiteer if he is to have any hope of winning over the party membership.
“We have to leave, we have to leave quickly, we have to leave cleanly. And I see Brexit as the biggest democratic challenge that we’ve had in our lifetimes. Because the political establishment, myself included, didn’t want Brexit or vote for Brexit. And yet we’ve always been telling people we are one of the oldest and greatest democracies in the world,” he said on Thursday.
‘Risk of no Brexit’
Hunt said the measure of Brexit’s success will be if Britain’s economy grows faster than those of other European countries over the next 10 years. But he is prepared to countenance leaving the EU without a deal, despite the economic disruption it would cause.
“If there was a binary choice between no deal or no Brexit I would choose no deal because I believe the democratic risk of no Brexit ultimately is higher than the economic risk of no deal. But the reality is that this parliament won’t allow no deal and I personally don’t think we should go back to the country and try to get a different parliament until we’ve left Europe, ” he said on Thursday.
“I’ve always preferred to leave with a deal because I believe there will be disruption without a deal and it’s very difficult to predict exactly what that disruption would be but I think it would potentially be very significant and that’s something that I think anyone sensible would wish to avoid.”