Jeremy Hunt Will Be the UK’s Bearer of Bad News

LONDON — Centrist, clean-cut and even-tempered to the point of blandness, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, had seemed out of step with his Conservative Party in recent years as it embraced the pro-Brexit bombast of Boris Johnson, then the right-wing tax-cutting agenda of Mr. Johnson’s short-lived successor in Downing Street, Liz Truss.

But after Ms. Truss’s fiscal plans sent the national currency crashing and borrowing costs soaring, competence and sobriety are suddenly back in fashion — and so is Mr. Hunt.

Appointed by Ms. Truss last month to help restore calm, Mr. Hunt was kept on by the new prime minister, Rishi Sunak. On Thursday Mr. Hunt, 56, will propose tax increases and cuts in public spending programs to try to close Britain’s yawning budget deficit and appease financial markets.

Like a doctor tending a sick patient, Mr. Hunt has already warned the British public that the medicine will be unpleasant — a jolt after the relentlessly upbeat messaging of Mr. Johnson’s years.

“The ‘gloomsters’ are back with a vengeance,” said Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a London-based research group, using one of Mr. Johnson’s favored term for those who questioned his prognostications.

With inflation soaring and growth plunging, Mr. Hunt is trying to gauge the minimum pain required to forestall another market slide, while knowing that imposing measures too harsh could tip the economy into an unnecessarily deep recession.

“It’s an appalling balancing act to have to manage,” said Ms. Rutter, a former Treasury official.

The job of delivering the grim news falls to a former foreign and health secretary who is something of an accidental chancellor.

In July, when Mr. Hunt ran to succeed Mr. Johnson, he was swiftly eliminated from the contest, and when told last month that Ms. Truss wanted to speak to him, Mr. Hunt at first assumed it was a prank call. But when he responded, he was handed the job of chancellor.

He now finds himself working for Mr. Sunak, who made his own reputation while leading the Treasury for two years, and is the more knowledgeable of the two on the economy.

“I imagine Rishi Sunak knows more about economics than his chancellor but I think they will have a proper grown-up conversation,” said Alistair Burt, a former Conservative lawmaker who served as a minister with Mr. Hunt. “Jeremy Hunt is collaborative, and I don’t think you have two rutting deer locking horns. They sink or swim together.”

Because Mr. Hunt did a good job in calming last month’s financial meltdown, there was a strong argument for keeping him. But in different circumstances Mr. Sunak might have chosen a different chancellor, and it is unclear whether Mr. Hunt will stay in that job until the next election, Ms. Rutter said.

For now he fits the bill as an experienced minister who served for six years as health secretary, one of the most grueling cabinet positions, and, his supporters say, as someone whose politeness belies a steeliness in confronting opponents.

Mr. Hunt is a quintessential product of the British establishment. His father was an admiral in the Royal Navy and Mr. Hunt attended an expensive private school, Charterhouse, where he was given the student leadership role of head boy and was regarded as a squeaky clean student whose favored sport was running.

He went on to Oxford University where he studied politics, philosophy and economics — the three-subject course favored by many aspiring British politicians — before teaching English in Japan and embarking on a business career that made his fortune. Some bumps in the road including a failed venture to sell marmalade in Japan, but an education business, Hotcourses, was a big financial success.

It also led him to meet his wife, Lucia Guo, who was then recruiting Chinese students in Britain to the University of Warwick. The couple married in 2009 in a traditional ceremony in Lijiang, China, during which Mr. Hunt had to perform several tasks, including singing, doing 25 push-ups and finding his bride’s shoes. “I had to do three kowtows to the sun,” Mr. Hunt told The Guardian.

Allies insist that Mr. Hunt is not as bland as he is sometimes portrayed. He is a fan of zouk lambada, a Brazilian dance, and as a new lawmaker he would sometimes leave Parliament at 10 p.m. to head to a club, where he would remove his jacket and formal shirt and take to the floor in a T-shirt that he wore beneath.

In 2010 he became culture secretary, then moved on to the health department where he confronted junior doctors in a dispute over their employment contracts, and gained a reputation for attention to detail, keeping a white board in his office devoted to reducing preventable medical errors.

Mr. Hunt opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum though he subsequently shifted his stance, saying he would vote to leave were the plebiscite held again.

In 2018 he was made foreign secretary by the prime minister at the time, Theresa May, performing well though not without some slips. In a particularly baffling error he referred to his Chinese wife as Japanese, and in a pitch to his party’s right-wingers, he appeared to liken the European Union to the Soviet Union.

When Mrs. May was forced out in 2019, Mr. Hunt ran to succeed her, saying he had been “waiting for this moment all my life.”

His party was waiting for someone else, however. Although Mr. Hunt made it to a runoff with Mr. Johnson, there was little doubt who would win the critical vote among party members. Having accused Mr. Johnson of cowardice for avoiding media scrutiny during the campaign, Mr. Hunt was banished to the backbenches where he led a select committee on health.

While his return to a top cabinet position is an unexpected reversal of fortune, his task is formidable. After years of feuding, and having dispensed with four leaders, Conservative lawmakers are divided, rebellious and hard to control, let alone unite.

One faction in Parliament believes it is a mistake to raise taxes during an economic downturn while other lawmakers may cry foul when spending programs are cut.

Even some allies are privately pessimistic about Mr. Hunt’s prospects although others believe that Mr. Hunt has as good a chance as anyone of restoring stability and salvaging his party’s dwindling fortunes.

“He has survived in politics and government because he’s the sort of person you want around the table,” said Mr. Burt, his former colleague. “When everything turns to dust, what does a prime minister do? They send for Jeremy Hunt.”

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