Week-In-Review: Can Jeremy Hunt stop the growing Sunak-Mordaunt plot?

The Conservative party is no stranger to comebacks, but there is something particularly curious about Jeremy Hunt’s return from the political wilderness this week.

Our new chancellor, lauded as a Conservative party “big beast”, is no stranger to the Cabinet table; under Cameron, he served as culture secretary and then health secretary, before taking charge at the foreign office under Theresa May. But foreign secretary was Hunt’s last government post. It feels like it has been three years since this happened.

Hunt’s vanquishing at the hands of Boris Johnson in 2019 saw the experienced moderate offered the defence brief. But the man dubbed “Theresa in Trousers” (or TiT) snubbed the incoming PM, opting for a stay on the backbenches where he could jibe, scrutinise and bother.

Hunt went from Cabinet journeyman to Tory Grandee in a matter of hours. Soon, Hunt could be heard intermittently challenging Matt Hancock to the position of Chair of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee.


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But ever-patient and always ambitious, the former foreign secretary was waiting to pick up from the mess of Boris Johnson’s premiership. Hunt has never claimed that his leadership ambitions are over.

As Johnson’s time as PM came to a close, Hunt’s name was regularly mentioned among those preparing for a leadership challenge.  Yet when the time came, this time Hunt won the support of only a handful of MPs — 18 in all. The Centrist Tories chose either Tom Tugendhat or Rishi Sunak, or the politically flexible Penny Mordaunt.

After dropping out, Britain’s longest-serving health secretary was in a reflective mood: “It’s become obvious to me you only get one big shot at this, and I had mine in 2019”. Hours after his prime ministerial dream was shattered, Hunt threw his weight behind Sunak — arguing that the former chancellor was “one of the most decent, straight people” he had ever met in Westminster.

As champion of “one-nation” Conservatism, Hunt nonetheless retained the respect of plenty of colleagues within the parliamentary party. While few seriously thought that Hunt could stage a successful political comeback, one-nation MPs, feeling increasingly nostalgic for the Cameron days, nonetheless admired the former businessman’s social liberalism.

Friday was the next day.

Truss has now brought Hunt in from the cold, in a major coup for the on his way-out greate. Playing into his image as a “safe pair of hands”, Truss billed her new treasury head on Friday as “one of the most experienced and widely respected government ministers and parliamentarians”. Self-consciously playing into his “Theresa in Trousers’” reputation, Truss thinks that Hunt’s grey, slightly wooden persona can help soften her appeal among MPs.

But Hunt’s boringness notwithstanding, there may be another motivation for promoting the one-time Culture Secretary — a darling of the conservative “one-nation” clique. This is not only party management by the prime Minister, but a desperate last-ditch effort at survival.

A tumultuous meeting between Truss (and the 1922 Committee of backbenchers) sparked an anonymous slew of criticisms. Reports emerged that senior backbenchers were in talks to replace Liz Truss with a ticket consisting of Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak.

One senior MP said: “Rishi’s people [and] Penny’s people … who realise she’s a disaster need to sit down together and work out who the unity candidate is”. A “council of elders” is apparently being corralled to tell Truss to quit. “Conversations are stepping up,” said one former minister.

The 1922 Committee rules forbid the prime minister from facing a confidence vote until she is in office for at least one year. In practice, however, Sir Graham Brady rules may be modified if enough supporters of Sunak or Mordaunt pressure her to.

Sunak and Mordaunt have a lot of support from the Conservative parliamentary party. Sunak won the support of just 137 MPs in the fifth ballot of the Conservative leadership contest. Mordaunt received 105. Combined, their total dwarfs Liz Truss’ showing of 113.

Nor is a “joint ticket” an entirely alien phenomenon to Conservative MPs. Jeremy Hunt was the winner of a joint run with Esther Mcvey during the 2022 contest. In 2016, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid teamed up in a brief attempt to retake the Tory crown.

A successful Sunak-Mordaunt plot is hence far from an impossibility — and reports of scheming among supporters continued well into Friday morning.

It is not a coincidence that as conversations stepped up between backbench MPs the prime minister summoned Kwarteng home to Downing Street to read the ex-chancellor’s last rites.

The appointment of Jeremy Hunt makes it difficult to install Sunak or Mordaunt in a variety of ways.

After Friday’s events, another new Chancellor later this year, in the form of either Sunak or Mordaunt, would be the fifth within five months. This, along with a possible fifth PM in the same number of years, would strongly support calls for an early election.

Additionally, Hunt’s appointment will bolster his prestige among the parliamentary party significantly. As of Friday, the former foreign secretary has held two out of the four great offices of state — putting Hunt in the perfect position to dictate terms to a weakened PM. This means that Sunak-Mordaunt plotters will now likely have to consider Hunt in any unity Cabinet. This could complicate a Sunak/Mordaunt transition.

Hunt may prove more difficult than Truss to dislodge in the end.

Kwarteng may be seen as a sacrificial lamb and the urgency to install Sunak/Mordaunt may be diminished. The organisationally savvy and ambitious among Truss’ MPs will find Hunt’s “safe pair of hands” reputation difficult to explain away.

Truss is not yet safe, but this subtle hijacking plot of Sunak-Mordaunt shows that the PM still has some tricks up her sleeves.

But boring and “safe” though he is, only time will tell whether Hunt has what it takes to pull Truss’ ailing premiership back together. Indeed, if the “hard-nosed businessman” does not quiet the markets and reel back the uncertainty, Hunt may end up sharing Truss’ fiscal baggage.

The plotters of the Sunak-Mordaunt will be waiting in their wings.