‘Vote early and vote often” is such a tired joke in political circles that perhaps Jeremy Hunt felt he had to invent his own. Instead of telling Conservative members to rush back to the postbox with their ballots this weekend, the Tory leadership contender has been asking them to take a week or so to consider their decision. His “vote slowly” slogan is “try before you buy”: if Tory members want to see what he’d be like as prime minister, then they should wait to watch this week’s TV debates.
It’s a lot of faith to put in just two television programmes, especially given the latest polling shows Boris Johnson to have a commanding lead over Hunt. But it’s also in keeping with Hunt’s main strategy throughout this campaign, which is to say yes to every single media bid, in order to get as much exposure as possible. Johnson, he claims, is dodging scrutiny by operating a “submarine campaign”. And yet all the TV interviews and newspaper profiles don’t seem to be working. What’s to say that this week’s programmes will change all of that?
Hunt’s campaign started rather behind Johnson’s. Not only had the latter been running a sophisticated data operation in parliament for three months before Theresa May announced she was going, but it had also started working in local constituency associations. When the contest launched for real, MPs were ready to fan out across the country, while Hunt’s lot were still working out who should do what.
There has been a strange lack of preparedness for the campaign. Even though Hunt had let it be known to friends that he wanted to stand for leader more than a year ago, he hadn’t followed up that ambition with much organisation. This is partly because he had hoped there wouldn’t be a contest before Britain left the European Union, as he knew it would be difficult for an ex-Remainer to campaign. He must have known it was unlikely that he’d get to choose the circumstances of the contest, but Hunt still appears to have been caught on the hop.
There was an early flip-flop over whether a no-deal Brexit would be “political suicide”, which made Brexiteers even more suspicious of the would-be prime minister. Then there was his accidental branding of the 31 October Brexit deadline as a “fake deadline”, when he’d meant to say “fake promise”. And then last week Hunt accidentally started a row about foxhunting after saying in one interview that he would repeal the ban on the bloodsport. His campaign team clarified the comments, saying he was merely reiterating existing party policy, which is to have a vote on a repeal when there is a majority in parliament to do so.
But it so upset the centrist Tories who seemed a shoo-in for Hunt, that some of them reconsidered their support. It also reminded them of the disastrous 2017 election campaign, in which May decided randomly to talk about foxhunting when candidates in marginal seats could have warned her that it would cause voters to turn back to Labour.
This messy campaigning was supposed to be Johnson’s big flaw, not Hunt’s. The foreign secretary was pitched as the organised, experienced candidate who knew how to get things done in government and who – in case you haven’t heard him mention it enough – was an entrepreneur.
Instead, he’s ended up looking like the Andy Burnham of the Tory leadership contest. In the 2015 contest to be Labour leader, Burnham seesawed from one policy position to another, depending which room he found himself in. Perhaps this rubbed off on Hunt in the years when the two sparred in the health brief. He has tried to out-Brexit Johnson, and has enjoyed a similar lack of success with party members as a result.
While he managed to pitch himself as a pragmatic ex-Remainer when he was “just” a cabinet minister, Hunt has undone that pragmatism during the campaign. Brexiteers now just don’t trust that he is committed to getting Britain out of the European Union in a timely fashion. As for the rest of the party, one MP who the Johnson campaign had marked down early on as virulently “anyone but Boris” told me they were so disappointed with the way Hunt had handled things that they were now considering voting for the former mayor of London. Another Tory said he was so upset by the dismal choice on offer that he was going to spoil his ballot paper.
Hunt’s aim at the start had been to work on around 80,000 undecided voters in the Tory electorate. Anecdotally, people who have attended hustings have been impressed by the foreign secretary, with good numbers telling journalists at the events that they plan to switch their allegiance to him. But even Hunt’s own supporters concede he’s unlikely to make it. “I think it’s just too far for him to go to make up all that difference,” says one ally. “Tory members just know that Boris makes them smile. Jeremy is judged by a much higher standard.”
It is true that Johnson has had his own flip-flops, particularly on domestic tax-and-spend policies. But the Tory membership seems to regard the two men in the same way as parents regard siblings: Hunt is the elder one subject to stricter curfews and higher expectations, while Johnson is the younger who manages to sail into their mid-20s without knowing how to load a dishwasher or do their own laundry. Only one of them gets an indulgent smile.
Like a lot of slightly over-anxious eldest siblings, Hunt has overdone things a bit. He has given so many interviews that he has dramatically inflated his own chances of making a mistake. One disillusioned senior Tory suggests that the flip-flops wouldn’t have happened had Hunt known his own mind, saying: “We’ve sat together in cabinet but I still have no idea what he really thinks about a whole host of things.”
Another suggests that the relentless way Hunt is approaching the contest has shown him to be not up to the job. “He is the fat kid running. He has to run 10 times more than the other kids just to prove he can do it. But the problem with people who aren’t natural athletes is that if they put themselves into an Olympic-style training regime they start to fall apart very quickly as they just can’t do it.” Hunt is a keen and fast runner, as it happens, and his allies think he can be proud of this relentless approach to the campaign.
One of Hunt’s key parliamentary supporters is Liam Fox, who says the way his friend has campaigned means the party will find it much easier to reunite after the contest, whoever wins. It is true that there has been little evidence of dirty tricks so far, save some rather dull bickering about email subscription lists. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Conservative party will find it easy to get along again.
The contest seems to be leaving some of its MPs feeling more politically homeless than ever, and several have told me that they are once again thinking seriously about a split if Johnson wins. Their main worry is that there doesn’t seem anywhere obvious for centrist Tories to go, given the failure of the last breakaway group from the two main parties.
“The only thing we’ve managed to prove in this contest is that we can’t find anyone better than three useless people who want to lead the Tory party: May, Boris and Jeremy,” says one MP. That uselessness might extend to the central party operation, too: some members have received two ballots, though voting often in this sense is strictly against party rules. The best many MPs are hoping for now is that another leadership contest comes along soon enough, and that with it comes a decent leader. Then the Tory party will be back to having to vote early and vote often, until it finds a way of surviving.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator