Rare family appearance and a TikTok glow-up — Jeremy Hunt’s first Budget
If there’s one video you watch today, you might want to make it the most recent one Jeremy Hunt just posted to his 258,000 Twitter followers.
“If you missed my budget and my plan for how we’re going to grow the economy, here are 11 things from the budget in 60 seconds,” says the bright-eyed Chancellor, dressed in a suit in front of a Downing Street bookcase, but chanelling the energy of a TikTok star. A cartoon stopwatch pops up next to him. “Start the clock,” he says with a smile, before succinctly summarising the top 11 pledges of his first-ever Budget.
The minute-long clip certainly offers a handy summary of Hunt’s Spring statement (further energy bill support, expanded free childcare, the abolition of the pension lifetime allowance), but it also marks a step-change for the MP for South West Surrey – a transition, if you will, into the inner circle of his boss Rishi Sunak, known for his slick, social media-friendly campaign videos when he was Chancellor himself three years ago. In an echo of several of Sunak’s recent media appearances, Hunt’s wife Lucia Guo and two of their three children even made a rare public appearance, posing alongside him on the steps outside Number 11.
For those following Hunt’s career so far, today’s events mark quite the moment. When the father-of-three, 56, got the gig back in October, most of us remembered him as a serious, “steady” former health, foreign and defence secretary most commonly known for being the first health minister to cause a junior doctors’ strike (fitting, this week of all weeks).
He became Britain’s fourth Chancellor in three months after the swift exit of his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng, who lasted just 38 days in the job, and came as a shock to those still getting used to “loud”, “bold” and “booming”-voiced Kwarteng as Chancellor – though many said his sudden promotion was hardly a surprise.
The “steady” longtime MP was the runner-up to Johnson in the 2019 general election and put his hat in the ring for the leadership again last summer, too, offering what he said was the opposite of the former Mayor of London: a serious, less controversial leadership style, with (hopefully) fewer rulebreaking parties. Colleagues have reportedly nicknamed him “Theresa May in trousers” — could his safe-pair-of-hands reputation be just what Truss’ “chaotic” Government needs?
Budget Day | Wednesday 15th March 2023
It might be too early to say, but early post-Budget commentary suggests it might be. Commentators say it is a fiscal plan that seemed confident and will deliver growth – no mean feat amid the toughest economic crisis in a generation.
From his years as Britain’s longest-serving health secretary to that infamous slipover over his wife’s nationality, here’s everything you need to know about Britain’s latest Chancellor.
From Charterhouse to culture secretary
In many ways, Hunt has your archetypal political upbrining. Born in Kennington, south London, in 1966, he went on to become head boy at Charterhouse, a £39,000-a-year boarding school in Surrey, before studying PPE at Oxford, where he was president of the Conservative Association.
After university, he worked in consulting before spending two years teaching English in Japan. He later founded his own PR company and educational publishing firm, Hotcourses.
He was elected as Conservative MP for South West Surrey in 2005 before serving as shadow disabilities minister and shadow culture secretary.
Once the Tories were voted in, he became culture secretary and later health secretary.
Britain’s “most unpopular” health secretary
Hunt might have been Britain’s longest serving health secretary but he’s also commonly known as its most unpopular.
He served in the post for six years from 2012 to 2018 and is open about his failings: he acknowledges that underfunding caused “a lot of pain for the NHS”, regrets letting social care cuts go “too far” and acknowledges that he was the first health minister to cause a junior doctors’ strike without emergency cover.
Over the last three years, he’s been waiting in the wings on the back benches, chairing the Commons Health Committee through the Covid crisis and writing a book about it. He told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show that in his new book, ‘Zero: Eliminating Unnecessary Deaths in a Post-Pandemic NHS’, he has “tried to be honest about the things I succeeded in doing and the things I wasn’t successful in”.
Hunt will also forever be haunted by another non-health-related skeleton from his time as health chief: his most infamous gaffe of referring to his Chinese wife as “Japanese” during a 2018 visit to Beijing.
Hunt’s second chance
Hunt ran to replace Theresa May as PM in 2019 but was beaten comfortably by Johnson, who elected him as the new chair of the health and social care select committee in January 2020.
The appointment was widely seen as Hunt’s chance to reboot his public profile. He was among the early favourites with bookmakers during last year’s leadership race, making clear efforts to position himself as the exact opposite of his former boss Johnson, insisting he’s a Tory “moderate” and that his posh background would not mean he’s out of touch with ordinary voters. Among his leadership pledges were that he would appoint the North West Tory MP Esther McVey as his deputy, who would act as the John Prescott to his Tony Blair, but he was knocked out before the final round for not having enough backers.
Before his election as Chancellor, he had recently been dropping hints that he might run for the Tory leadership again before the 2024 election. He had previously said it was not the “right time” for a leadership change given the war in Ukraine, but added: “But I would be very open with you that I don’t rule out a return in the future.”
A safer “unity candidate” or “political suicide”?
Hunt was a prominent backer of Sunak during last summer’s leadership race so his appointment to Truss’ Government will be watched with a close interest — particularly given that he doesn’t share Truss and Kwarteng’s commitment to tax cuts and the ideological free market.
During summer’s contest he pledged to immediately slash corporation tax from 19p to 15p if he became prime minister. “It’s not the most sexy of cuts but it just matters in terms of getting our economy moving,” he told Sky News at the time.
“I’m someone who doesn’t just think that we stop the corporation tax rises, I think we should cut them so that they’re the lowest in Europe and North America,” he said. “No Conservative should promise unfunded tax cuts. Because an unfunded tax cut is just an increase in borrowing that’s paid for by future generations”
As chancellor, one of his first tasks was raising corporation tax to 25p — a reversal of Kwarteng’s mini-budget plan and the exact opposite of what he pledged as part of his leadership campaign.
Supporters of Hunt said his election signalled a shift in policy direction for Truss’ Government. He is widely seen as a centrist in the party and a “unity candidate” who will bring the party together and play it safe with the economy.
If you missed my budget and my plan for how we’re going to grow the economy, here are 11 things from the budget in 60 seconds, start the clock 👀 pic.twitter.com/Ra06Opye24
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) March 15, 2023
But critics at the time called his appointment “political suicide”, saying he’s an “authoritarian globalist” who “failed to plan for a pandemic whilst Health Secretary” — is he really up to saving the economy as the UK teeters on the edge of a recession?
Today’s Budget gives us our first clue – but at least, whatever happens, he’s already lasted longer than Kwarteng.