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Jeremy Hunt: “I don’t think anyone can say no to a Prime Minister twice”

Jeremy Hunt: “I don’t think anyone can say no to a Prime Minister twice”
11 min read

After turning down Theresa May once this year, Jeremy Hunt couldn’t bring himself to say no to the Prime Minister twice. Taking over as Foreign Secretary from his controversial predecessor, he enters one of the great offices of state at a time of global upheaval, with Russia, Trump and Brexit among the issues on his in-tray. He talks to Daniel Bond 

When Jeremy Hunt started his last job in politics, Barack Obama was still in his first term as US President, Donald Trump was a property tycoon and reality TV star, David Cameron and the coalition were enjoying a stable government with a majority of more than 50 and Britain was revelling in a renewed sense of national unity and pride brought on by the 2012 Olympics.

As he leaves some six years on to begin a new role, the world seems a very different place. 

Dubbed the “great survivor” at the Department of Health by a ministerial colleague, Hunt’s longevity was so remarkable that the Prime Minister herself tried and failed to move him on. At the reshuffle earlier this year, Hunt walked up Downing Street amid rumours of demotion to the business department and at the height of one of the worst NHS winter crises in years, only to emerge some two hours later still in post – and with a significantly beefed up brief covering social care. If Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister, Theresa May later joked in an after-dinner speech to journalists, she would be “breaking rocks in John McDonnell’s re-education camp. But of course, Jeremy Hunt would still be Health Secretary.”

Only a few months later, what’s changed? “Well, I don’t think anyone can say no to a Prime Minister twice,” Hunt replies with a grin, as we squeeze in amongst the moving boxes in his Commons office off ministerial corridor. Just weeks after becoming the longest-serving Health Secretary ever, Hunt is packing up his belongings and moving the short distance to the Westminster office of the Foreign Secretary. 

But on the evening we meet, it’s May herself who is emerging as British politics’ ‘great survivor’. Following a week of plots, resignations and rebellions – the government survived a close call on the Trade Bill by just three votes, thanks in part to a Lib Dem diary malfunction, and over the Customs Bill by just five, thanks to a small group of Labour leavers – she can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and head into the summer recess with the knowledge she will likely still be in No10 come the autumn.

Whether the Chequers deal itself will survive the summer is less certain. As one Tory MP remarked: “We are tearing ourselves apart over something that is dead. We are negotiating with the EU over something that is dead. We are trying to sell to the public something that is dead.” 

The new Foreign Secretary – who voted Remain in the referendum but has since described himself as a Brexit convert after encountering the “arrogance” of the European Commission’s approach to negotiations – has so far kept his counsel since the Chequers summit. But he makes clear that the agreement is not just alive and kicking, but is now the only game in town. 

“It is absolutely alive,” he says. “Of course, there is a process that we’re going through to make that argument to fellow Conservative MPs, but this is the only way that we can square the circle between the EU’s red lines about the four pillars of the single market, our own red lines in terms of control of our money, border and laws, and the needs of business to have frictionless trade with our largest trading partner on the continent. 

“The goal for British business and British industry of frictionless trade with our largest trading partner is one that every Conservative should support, because we are the party that believes in free trade, we believe in the huge, huge positive benefits that it brings to prosperity and to jobs.”

Hunt believes in time the deal will be viewed as the moment the logjam in talks with Brussels was finally broken. “As the dust settles and people go to the summer holidays, they will reflect on the fact that the only real compromise that we made in the Chequers Agreement was on product regulation, and most manufacturers would have followed EU product regulations anyway,” he says.

“So, of course this is a difficult issue, of course it’s been a really difficult period, but this is the key to unlocking European negotiations.”

All eyes now turn to the crucial European Council summit in October, where the government hopes to secure the divorce agreement, and a declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Hunt says preparations for the summit will be the “primary focus” of his first three months in post, as he works to ensure the Foreign Office is equipped to deal with “the biggest change in our relationship with the rest of the world that we’ve had in a generation”.

“The Foreign Office is the best diplomatic service in the world, and it is an incredible honour to be responsible for it. But it’s a diplomatic network that is going to be tested to its limit in the next year and the years that follow,” he says.

“There’s been a Foreign Secretary for 236 years, so this is a very, very experienced organisation. And it’s going to be absolutely critical that we use that diplomatic network that the Foreign Office has developed over centuries.

“We’re going to need its help to negotiate the very best Brexit deal for Britain. That’s what we have to do, and that what I have to make happen.”

The departure of Boris Johnson from the Foreign Office was met with a sigh of relief in most diplomatic circles, after two years punctuated with a series of blunders, including his remark that the war-torn Libyan city of Sirte could be like Dubai “once they clear the dead bodies away”, and an erroneous claim – seized upon by the Iranian authorities – that a British mother jailed on spying charges had been in the country “teaching journalism”.

The former Foreign Secretary won plaudits for subsequently taking up the cause of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and vowing to secure her release. But following his resignation, her family have spoken of their fear that that task will now be at “the bottom of the pile”. Hunt insists the case will not slip down the list of priorities. “It certainly won’t,” he says, adding that he has already been in contact with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and invited him to meet “at the earliest opportunity”. “I want to reassure him that I’ll be taking this every bit as seriously as Boris.”

The former London Mayor also clashed repeatedly with the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, who raised concerns that his brand of humour risked undermining the Foreign Office’s standing, when what was needed from the department was “a very cool headed, stern and strategic” approach. “It’s very, very hard to make humour work in international environments, which is why very few serious politicians try it,” Tugendhat told this magazine in a barbed interview last autumn.

Hunt cuts a very different figure. Considered, composed in a crisis, trusted by No10 and – according to whispers in Westminster circles – an increasingly likely candidate for the next Conservative leader. How will his approach to the Foreign Office differ from his predecessor?

“The first thing to say is Boris is a driving force in British politics,” Hunt replies. “He changed the history of our country, and he deserves enormous respect for that, even though not everyone will agree with his views or what he did. But he did some very important things at the Foreign Office. He organised an extremely effective response to the attempted murder of the Skripals in Salisbury, he launched our campaign for 12 years of education for girls, and he started a campaign to ban the illegal wildlife trade. I want to build on what he did.

“But I also want to make sure that our aspirations for a big, new global role for Britain are backed up with really practical steps that reinforce the strength of Nato, which has been so vital to our security, and that support the rules based system that Britain gave the world and that is now being questioned by lots of things, not least Russian aggression in the Crimea.”

If Hunt’s first few days in the Foreign Office are any indication, then managing the UK’s response to Russia is sure to dominate his in-tray over the coming months and years. He entered the Foreign Office the day after Dawn Sturgess, one of two British nationals poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, died in hospital in Amesbury, and the day before Donald Trump embarked on a European tour that would take in the most significant Nato Summit in a generation, a contentious visit to the UK and finally a trip to Helsinki for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The high-stakes summit signalled a new era of US-Russia relations, with the US president even using a joint press conference after the talks to predict an “extraordinary relationship” between the two countries. 

What does Hunt make of Trump’s gamble? “President Trump has a view that given the fact that Russia has been responsible for a large amount of aggression, and is a nuclear power, the only responsible thing for him as President of the United States, as someone who passionately wants to avoid nuclear conflagration, is to talk to his opposite number, to try and build up a chemistry and a relationship that can stop misunderstandings and de-escalate some of the tensions. That’s the approach he’s taking,” he says.

“I think he was right not to make any big gestures over the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, and we made that case to him when he was here. But what he wants to do is see what is the possibility of de-escalating the nuclear arms race, which you can’t do unless you talk.”

Trump blamed the poor state of Washington-Moscow relations in recent years not on Russian aggression, but on “many years of US foolishness and stupidity”. Is that a view the Foreign Secretary would endorse?

“I think, you know, he has domestic political arguments that he wishes to make,” Hunt replies. “But the only point I would make as British Foreign Secretary is that the foundation of the West’s response to first Soviet and then Russian aggression has been Nato and a strong partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom. And following his visit here, I think it’s clear that that is stronger than ever.”

With the UK still seeking answers from the Russian authorities over the poisoning of the Skripals and the subsequent death of a British national, and no sign of a solution on Crimea, Hunt is clear that sanctions on Moscow will remain in place “until we see Russian behaviour change”. “Let’s be clear, they attempted to murder two people on British soil, using a deadly nerve agent, and it’s entirely possible that as a result of that attempted murder a British citizen subsequently died – we’re still yet trying to understand that – so this is completely unacceptable behaviour. We continue to make that case in the strongest possible terms.” 

But does Helsinki signal a divergence between UK and US policy towards Russian aggression?  “We have a very deep, enduring partnership with the United States, and I think fundamentally we are on the same page,” he says. “We have the same response to the Russian aggression, which is very robust in terms of sanctions, in terms of expulsion of diplomats but also a willingness to have a dialogue, and to talk. So, in that sense we are in exactly the same place.” 

Hunt is clear that with the foundations of the post-war order facing unprecedented challenge, the Foreign Office must take a “global lead”.

“There are some really, really important big arguments on the international stage that we have to win as a country, and that’s what I want the Foreign Office to do,” he says.

“There are some real challenges to the global order that has generated extraordinary peace and prosperity in the post-war period. There are challenges to lots of things that we take for granted, to the rules based order, there are real challenges to Nato, to free trade as an engine for prosperity.

“It’s lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty over the course of my lifetime, and it can continue to be a force for good. But there are people to whom you have to remake the argument of the importance of free trade.

 “What the Foreign Office needs to do is to take a global lead in making sure that the foundations of our peace and prosperity that have served us so well for so long continue to go from strength to strength.”  

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