Voices: Jeremy Hunt is now the de facto prime minister

Britain, at the time of writing, still has a prime minister, Liz Truss. Therese Coffey is still deputy prime minister. But the country also has a new de facto prime minister, Jeremy Hunt, who also happens to be the new chancellor of the exchequer.

The thing to understand about Hunt is that he’s tougher, smarter – and richer – than you might think. Apart from the freakishly wealthy-by-marriage Rishi Sunak, Hunt is the richest to fill the post in many a decade.

He made about £14m out of a remote learning business he set up himself, so he knows about making money and business. He’s clever enough to be the richest guy in the cabinet, and he will have no intellectual or dogmatic impediment to understanding what’s happening in the economy and taking the necessary measures.

He also knows about making a deal. There was a curiously long lacuna between Kwasi Kwarteng’s sacking and the announcement of his surprise successor. It suggests very much as though he spent some time driving a hard bargain with his latest prime minister.

He will have to demand, and secure, full autonomy over economic policy and the public finances – and thus control the domestic policies of the government. He will be in at least as strong a position as, say, Gordon Brown and George Osborne were under David Cameron and Tony Blair respectively. He wants his own officials, his own advisers, his own ministers (eg not Chris Philp), and his own policies.

In short: Jeremy Hunt will be running the show, and Truss will be a sort of “PRINO” – prime minister in name only.

He’s tough like that, Hunt, and a shrewd player. When Theresa May tried to shift him out of the health job in 2018 he dug his heels in, and – weak as she was – she had to leave him where he was.

He’s been able to navigate the Whitehall maze in successive departments, and basically kept a political lid on the NHS for about six years. When Boris Johnson defeated him for the leadership in 2019, he smelled trouble and declined to serve in Johnson’s government. He had a poor showing in the last leadership contest, coming last after a bizarre “dream ticket” with Esther McVey; but the tide was against his kind of centrist, pragmatic ex-Remainer Toryism.

You wouldn’t know it from their long faces, but this is excellent news for the Tories, and a real setback for Labour.

What’s done is done, and the task now for Hunt is to repair the damage, fix the public finances, press on and display a modicum of competence. With much of the mini-Budget reversed, it is far easier to restore confidence and fix the public finances.

With the right mix of taxes and spending, a partnership with the OBR and Bank of England – and a little luck – the recent panics can be put behind the government and a long hard slog to get a post-Brexit economy back to modest growth embarked upon.

As a former Remainer, he knows what harm Brexit has done. He has no intention of reversing it; but he’s not going to entertain delusions about Brexit opportunities of trade deal bonanzas. There will be an end to futile boosterism and blind optimism about a “new economic age”. Expectations are going to get recalibrated.

The next few years are going to hurt, but at least there will be a road map, a route, and some way out of the nation’s problems. The talk about growth will be refocused to a more distant future, and the 2.5 per cent trend growth rate downplayed.

The medium-term fiscal plan will be key to success. It will be orthodox, practical and won’t shock anyone. Hunt is not a “disrupter” and he won’t allow the UK economy to be experimented on by the mad men of Tufton Street. As a former culture secretary, Hunt will use his influence to scrap the plans to destroy the BBC and Channel 4.

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As a former health secretary he will also find ways to allow more medics to migrate to the UK, and at long last implement an NHS staff plan.

Hunt and Truss know that if he ever resigned, he would bring her down with him. She is now his prisoner in her own government, which is just as well. In due course, as things improve in 2024, the Tories’ ratings should improve, and her chances of survival with them. It’s unlikely the Tories will be able to win the next election, but with Hunt in charge of domestic policy, they can at least dare to hope.

Labour must realise that the easy days of Tory self-immolation may soon pass. Truss remains highly vulnerable, because she’s not up to the job, but the terms of political trade have switched in her favour. Hunt is by far her best appointment. The nadir has passed.