Over the past two years, former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson earned global recognition as the poster boy for Brexit, appearing on magazine covers and news programs to make the case for Britain to leave the European Union. The man who will soon replace Johnson, however, campaigned against the Brexit policy he must now help carry out.
Jeremy Hunt, Britain's long-serving health minister, was named the new foreign secretary after Johnson dramatically resigned Monday, writing in a letter that he “cannot in all conscience” support Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal for a “soft Brexit.”
Hunt, 51, was one of 24 cabinet ministers under former prime minister David Cameron who called for Britain to remain in the E.U. two years ago, though he has since changed his position and said publicly that he supports Brexit. Hunt's appointment means that all four of Britain’s “Great Offices of State” — the prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and home secretary — will be held by leaders who originally campaigned to remain in the E.U.
Hunt, along with newly appointed Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, must now guide the country’s divided leadership through negotiations with the E.U. before Britain is formally booted out of the bloc in nine months. And despite his public change of position, Hunt's critics aren't sure he's up to the task given his history as a Remain campaigner and his controversial legacy as health minister.
In February 2016, Hunt tweeted his support for Cameron’s proposal to remain in the E.U., adding that “democracy & human rights” would be “stronger if we stay.” A month later, he made his views more explicit, arguing in an opinion article for the Guardian that Brexit would place undue financial pressure on the British economy, particularly on the country’s health-care infrastructure.
“I want Britain’s voice to be strong in the world and believe we will be better off and more secure by remaining in the European Union,” he wrote.
After the 2016 referendum, in which 51.9 percent of participating Britons voted to leave, Hunt called for a second referendum that would allow Britons to vote on the terms of their exit out of the E.U.
Early champions of Brexit, such as Johnson and former Brexit secretary David Davis, argued that Britain should negotiate a deal with free access to the E.U.’s single market, but without the free movement of people. Hunt argued for a different approach in an article for the Telegraph, proposing a “Norway plus” option that would see “full access to the single market with a sensible compromise on free movement rules.”
Only in October 2017, more than a year after the referendum, did Hunt tell LBC radio that he had changed his mind on Brexit, in part because of the purported “arrogance” of E.U. leaders at the negotiating table.
“Frankly, the way that the E.U. commission has behaved since the referendum has been, for me, very disappointing,” he said. “Every time we make really generous and openhearted offers, we get this response, ‘It’s not enough. We need more, we need more.' "
During his five years as health secretary, Hunt also weathered multiple controversies, including protests calling for more funding for the National Health Service, accusations from health-care professionals that he provided “potentially fatal” medical advice to the public and Britain's first all-out strike by junior doctors. Two years ago, just after the Brexit vote, the controversy around Hunt seemed to reach a boiling point as speculations emerged that May had fired, then reinstated him as health secretary, BBC reported.
But some of Hunt's colleagues think that job has prepared him well for the complexities of Brexit negotiations. “He is the great survivor,” said Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat politician who worked under Hunt in the health ministry, to the Guardian. “He has a skill for seeing off political disasters.”