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Jeremy Hunt is learning to become a football referee. Clad in black, the culture secretary relates on his website his experience at an under-11s match: “The only disappointment was that the home team lost,” he says. “Mind you, as a strictly independent ref, I probably should not be expressing a view ...”
Probably not. But Mr Hunt’s preference for Beacon Hill in their match against Petersfield will come as little surprise to those who have followed the saga of his attempt to officiate on the £8bn bid by News Corp to take full control of BSkyB.
“Great and congrats on Brussels,” Mr Hunt texted to James Murdoch, the News Corp chief executive, as the bid passed an EU regulatory hurdle. A few hours later the so-called “cheerleader” for the Murdoch empire was put in charge of the most sensitive British media bid in recent years.
Mr Hunt admitted this week at the Leveson inquiry into press standards that he had not initially understood his new “quasi-judicial” role; certainly his interpretation did not preclude his office feeding sensitive information to News Corp or stop the minister talking by mobile phone to James Murdoch, against the advice of officials.
For a gruelling 90 minutes on Thursday, Mr Hunt was the quarry. His voice occasionally caught in his throat and he shifted nervously as the extent of his cosy entanglement with the Murdoch machine was laid bare.
As the day developed Mr Hunt seemed to regain his poise. “I did think about my own position but I had conducted the bid scrupulously fairly,” he said. The “steel” that his colleagues detect under his affable demeanour came through and by the time he left the Royal Courts of Justice he had done enough to save his career, at least for now. “He stays,” declared an aide to David Cameron minutes later.
Mr Cameron is determined his minister will oversee the Olympics, the co-ordination of which has been the highlight of his career so far. But it is a career that has stalled, to say the least. From hot tip to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader, the culture secretary is now the bookies’ favourite to be the next minister to leave the cabinet.
Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt was born in 1966, the son of a Royal Navy admiral and the descendent of a family that had long had links with colonial India and distant blood ties to Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader, and the royal family.
The comparisons with Mr Cameron are inevitable. Born into wealth, educated at an illustrious public school (Charterhouse) and Oxford, his political views are “uncannily” similar to the prime minister’s, according to a ministerial colleague.
“He’s influenced by Margaret Thatcher but he doesn’t have that outsider’s ardour you associate with some of Thatcher’s children,” says the same colleague. “He’s essentially a One-Nation Tory – socially liberal – but because of the seismic impact of Thatcher he’s eurosceptic and in favour of the free market and low taxes.”
After university he went to live in Japan. His attempts to export marmalade to east Asia were not successful but he forged a more lasting cultural exchange in 2009 when he married his Chinese fiancée Lucia; the couple have two children.
After dabbling in conserves, Mr Hunt set up a PR company and Hotcourses, a successful education company. Blessed with good looks, an easy manner and an estimated £4.7m fortune, he was an attractive Tory proposition and was selected to fight the marginal seat of South West Surrey in 2005.
Mr Hunt is sometimes dismissed as a political lightweight, but his achievement as a constituency MP is remarkable, building up a majority of 600 into one of 16,000 in the course of two elections; colleagues speak with envy at his work rate and determination to shake up an underperforming local party.
When Mr Cameron, an Oxford contemporary, stood for the Tory leadership in 2005, Mr Hunt had no hesitation in backing him. His reward was steady promotion through the ranks and into the cabinet when the coalition was formed in 2010. By then he was being tipped as a future Tory leader, but some were unsure exactly why.
Ben Bradshaw, Mr Hunt’s Labour predecessor as culture secretary, is unimpressed by his successor: “He looks like he’s on Valium with that vacant smile,” he says. “He’s a wealthy Cameroon who has risen without trace. I have absolutely no idea what he believes in.”
Beyond his media-friendly image, colleagues observe with some surprise that Mr Hunt is not pursuing the usual tactics for a wannabe prime minister. He does not go out of his way to build a coterie of loyal allies – one admirer admits he is not very clubbable – nor does he make panoramic speeches setting out a Huntite vision for Britain.
“He’s clever, charming, very capable but the question about him yet to be answered is what does he believe in and what gets him going,” says Paul Goodman, a former Tory MP. Mr Hunt enthuses about broadband and local television, but neither subject exactly explains to the public what sort of society he would want to build.
Perhaps the public will never know. But Mr Hunt’s allies say he has no intention of stepping down as a minister: “Why would you go through all of this if you were going to quit?” asks one. His supporters in government say he is highly disciplined and will get on with the job – including his responsibility for the Olympics.
If the games go to plan, Mr Hunt may have a springboard for a political revival. But he knows he has taken a serious knock. When the BSkyB affair embroiled Mr Hunt last month, his popularity across party lines just about got him through a torrid Commons statement but at times he floundered, almost gulping for air. As MPs streamed out of the chamber, one veteran Tory observed with acid simplicity: “He was OK. But you didn’t feel like you were listening to a future prime minister.”
The writer is the FT’s political editor
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