Dawn Foster is a staff writer for Jacobin magazine and columnist for the Guardian newspaper.
Britain’s Conservative Party may not struggle with poverty of ambition amid the ranks of its elected Westminster politicians, but it has an absolute famine of talent. That’s clear in Boris Johnson, the front-runner to be the next prime minister, but equally so his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, an extreme outside bet to replace the outgoing Theresa May.
There is a historic tradition among the British elite of failing upward: No matter how poorly you manage a job, you will never find yourself short of more work.
During his career, Johnson has been sacked repeatedly but is the favorite to take over the premiership. George Osborne, a former chancellor of the exchequer, secured multiple high-paying jobs after failing to manage the British economy, including becoming editor of the Evening Standard newspaper. Osborne is now leaving the London newspaper in financial straits, and is apparently hoping to be chosen for a senior International Monetary Fund role.
Hunt is no stranger to the fail-up phenomenon, and only in the last year has he even attempted to claw back some of the credibility necessary to grab a chance at the top job. Previously, in his roles as culture secretary, then health secretary, he was considered both incredibly arrogant and supremely incompetent.
His tenure as culture and sports secretary offered some like moments: He famously almost hit a woman with a bell to herald in the start of the 2010 Olympics in London. And during the Leveson independent government inquiry into phone hacking at British newspapers, it was revealed that he once hid behind a tree upon seeing journalists waiting outside a dinner event. The reason for such farcical evasive behavior was less amusing: He was trying to hide the fact that he was heading for drinks with James Murdoch, son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Hunt would face calls to resign when the Leveson inquiry revealed he had set up a private back channel to relay information to the Murdochs, while at the same time he had been tasked with deciding whether the Murdoch’s News Corp. should be allowed to take over BSkyB, a British media and telecommunications conglomerate.
That episode inexplicably did not finish Hunt: He fell upward, into a disastrous tenure in health care. There is nothing that crosses the political divide more in the Britain than the belief in the National Health Service, both by service users and staff. Hunt’s decision to force through sweeping changes to doctors’ contracts that specifically penalized female health workers for taking maternity leave led to the unprecedented move by junior doctors to go on strike.
Sympathy for striking workers in Britain is usually low; it’s higher among Labour Party voters. But the sight of young doctors, stating they had trained for years to work for the NHS and were being paid far less than any colleagues before them and, in addition, were forced to work unpaid overtime, generated a huge backlash. A competent health minister would have recognized the risk posed by attacking junior doctors working in the NHS, and a less arrogant politician wouldn’t have assumed there would be no sympathy for such a strike. Hunt was neither and, even today, Conservative members have told me they hate Boris Johnson but could never vote for Hunt after what he did to the the doctors and for his disdain of the health service.
Hunt’s previous ministerial tenure has helped secure Johnson’s near-certain victory. Hunt has vacillated on Brexit, initially backing the argument Britain should remain a member of the European Union and now swinging to an extreme position that could see Britain crash out of the E.U. with no withdrawal agreement or proper trade agreement in place, as Johnson wishes. This is purely an attempt by Hunt to copy his competitor.
A Hunt administration may be less disastrous than a Johnson one, but it would still be disastrous. And Hunt’s past has shown him to be arrogant, unpredictable and incompetent — albeit in a more modern Conservative way than Johnson’s bumbling Etonian shtick.
Under Hunt, the National Health Service would be in jeopardy; and there would be no safety from media monopolies spurred on by the whims of his close business pals. All you can say for Hunt is that he has — so far — been less disastrous than Johnson as foreign secretary, but that’s likely attributable to personal expediency rather than sudden political growth.