Chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt is getting his feet under the table – but it has been a massive upheaval for the South West Surrey MP, moving from the back benches to such a prominent position in the government. He gives his thoughts on a wide range of issues to COLIN CHANNON.
What do your family think of your new role? During the autumn statement you were on the front pages of all the papers, and on every TV screen…
The family have taken it in their stride. At the beginning of December we moved into Number 11 and the children have already started regular playdates with Rishi’s children, as they’re just next door.
One of his daughters goes to boarding school but there are four children and they hare around when everyone else has gone home, playing hide and seek.
They are all of a similar age – Rishi’s daughters are nine and 11 and mine are eight and ten, and I have a son who is 12. It is a great play area for hem – it looks quite small on the outside but it’s like the Tardis, there’s a lot of room inside.
I was having a quiet drink with Rishi the other night in his flat and suddenly the door opened and four kids marched in and jumped on top of me.
It’s nice that there’s a family atmosphere in what can otherwise be a fairly formal place.
Sometimes there’s a little bit of a feeling of living above the office and it’s an odd feeling having to go through lots of security to get to our front door.
But it’s a privilege to be doing this job, particularly in the present circumstances, and we are all very conscious of that.
Is it a permanent home or just somewhere to stay?
At weekends we go back to our place in Surrey, which is still what we call home, and that’s where we were for Christmas, but during the week I’m here in Downing Street.
You wrote in the Herald about being offered the job, and thinking someone was playing a joke. But you went from being a mischievous backbencher asking some awkward questions of the government to being back in the cabinet. Did you have to think twice? It looked as if you were quite enjoying chairing the health select committee and making mischief…
I do have the misfortune of being a chancellor of the exchequer whose views on a whole range of things, particularly the NHS and social care, are not just a matter of public record but I’ve even written a book about them! There’s no getting away from the fact people know what I think on a lot of different issues.
But I was very happy on the back benches and thought my political career as a government minister was over – and I was not just resigned to that but I was content with it, because being in the cabinet isn’t brilliant for family life.
It’s not just the pressure on the diary but it’s the fact you’re always a little bit preoccupied with what’s coming up and the big events happening around you.
But my dad was in the navy – he has sadly now passed on – but I just have to think for one moment what he would have thought when you were offered an important job, and I think the answer is you have to do your duty, and that’s really what I thought.
It’s obviously a very challenging situation for the economy but it’s a very important role at a very difficult time.
I also think people in South West Surrey would have expected me to accept a job like that. I think they sent their MP to parliament to do their duty and it was one of those moments when people would have wanted me to do that.
In truth I had a little apprehension about going back into the fray and some nervousness, as I have no great financial background – I have a business background. But having arrived at the job it’s totally fascinating, very challenging and stretching, very long hours, but having set up and run my own business for 14 years, the chance to come back and think what I could do to help other people who might want to set up their own business, just as I had when I was in my 20s, and what I could do to encourage and support that, is something I wanted to do.
There were whispers that after you had such high-profile roles as foreign minister and health minister that life on the back benches wasn’t for you, and that perhaps it was time to step away at the next election…
The thought had never crossed my mind. I am still very committed to public service and I believe that old saying that there is no greater privilege for an Englishmen than to be a member of parliament.
I spent the three lockdowns we had during the pandemic writing my book on the future on the NHS and I was halfway through writing a similar book on Britain’s place in the world, reflecting on my time as foreign secretary, and I was really enjoying that. I would be happy to be an MP as long as the constituents want to keep sending me back to Westminster, but when I’m over the hill I’m sure they’ll let me know.
After so long in power, the Chiddingfold by-election result must have caused a stir in the Conservative ranks? It has always been seen as a true-Blue part of the world.
There were particular circumstances with that by-election but I don’t pretend it’s not a difficult time for us after 12 years in power and dealing with a global financial crisis, a pandemic and an energy crisis, but I am very proud that despite those global shocks the British economy has been one of the fastest growing among the major economies, and I think that’s because the Conservatives have been willing to take difficult decisions.
A result of those decisions mean that in the autumn statement I was able to find extra money for the NHS, and extra money for local schools, so I think people in Farnham, Godalming and Haslemere understand that with Conservatives you get a group of people who will take the tough and difficult decisions necessary for our long-term prosperity.
I don’t pretend it’s going to be easy but I don’t actually think it’s ever been easy in South West Surrey.
I remember my first election in South West Surrey and the majority was fewer than 1,000 so it has always been a close fight and I will fight hard for every single vote.
When you were a backbencher, you made it clear how you wanted to see change in the NHS. Now you are back in the cabinet, holding the purse strings and part of the team who can make those changes, do you still see things the same way?
I hope that with a lot of the things I talked about when I was chair of the health and social care select committee, I will be in a much stronger position to help make that happen.
The health secretary is Steve Barclay and the final decision is his, but I spent a lot of time talking about the fact that we weren’t going to empty the hospital beds occupied by the people who should be in the community unless we invest more on social care, and despite big tax rises and big spending cuts I was able to find an extra £4.7bn to increase the social care budget.
That’s a nearly 25 per cent increase in the social care budget, the biggest winner. People don’t talk about social care enough but my experience and what I learned as health secretary and what I campaigned on in parliament, meant I came with a very clear understanding that it was an issue we needed to resolve.
I heard today there are still 13,000 beds occupied by people who could be at home and I think that money will make a real difference.
The short answer is I think I am in a much better position to try to help the NHS having spent that time on he back benches, and not just thinking about what needs to happen but thinking about my own time as health secretary and what I could have done differently, and what I would have done then if I know what I know now.
That period of reflection is really good in politics.
There is talk now that people are waiting longer and longer for operations. Does news like that still get to you?
Since I stepped down as health secretary we have obviously had the pandemic which was a huge shock to the NHS and we are still recovering from that, and I understand how difficult that is.
We were very lucky to have the NHS during the pandemic but we have learned it needs more capacity to help with those kind of shocks.
Some of the extra funding I was able to give the NHS will help do that.
Does money cure everything?
No, it’s about staff, it’s about training more doctors and nurses. When I was on the back benches I was unsuccessful in persuading the government that we needed to have a proper, independently-verified workforce plan to check we were training enough doctors and nurses for the future, and that was something else I was able to announce in the autumn statement.
I hope people in the NHS and care system feel I have been consistent in what I have done as chancellor with what I said on the back benches.
The great thing about British politics is we have local newspapers like the Herald checking up on us and holding us to account, and I know the letters pages of the Herald will be first to identify if I don’t do what I said I would do.
How much of a learning curve has it been to become chancellor? Is it harder to get to grips with finance than, say, foreign affairs or health?
I worried when I took the job that I may not have the head for numbers that being the country’s finance director requires.
But what I have discovered is that it’s not about numbers, it’s about values. Every decision you make about where to allocate money is a reflection of your values and that’s why I said, when we had the autumn statement, it wasn’t just about stability and growing the economy, it’s about protecting public services, finding support for schools and the NHS, and that was what I was able to do.
I’m very lucky – the Treasury has got the brightest civil servants in Whitehall and they are super-smart people who are there to advise you on how to make the numbers add up, but what they want to know is what your priorities are, and that’s not about numbers, it’s about values.
If that’s the case, how did everything go so badly wrong with Liz Truss?
There were mistakes, there are no two ways about it, and I reversed those within a couple of days of coming into office.
There was a right lesson and a wrong lesson to draw from what happened. The right lesson is that it was wrong to cut the top rate of tax at a time when the country was going through difficult times. It worried people that we were being ideological rather than practical.
But it would be wrong to say as a result of that that politicians shouldn’t be bold. The situation we are in as a country is one where we have some very severe challenges but we are also a country that is very proud of our history and has incredible potential in the future.
And if we are going to live up to that potential, we are not going to get there by being cautious. We are going to have to do some bold things.
I have already said in the Herald that I wanted us to be the next Silicon Valley and I think we could do that.
People say you’re one of politics’ nice guys. People in the Treasury told me today they enjoy working for you and that you have decent values. So how hard was it during the pandemic to see the stories coming out of drinks and partying? Did it damage politics?
The government didn’t get everything right during the pandemic but part of my own values is not to criticise other politicians because I think politics is better without personal criticism.
I do think what the most likely explanation for what happened was that people were working extremely long hours, which were a lapse of judgement, but in reality the context was they were doing everything they could to keep the country safe in very difficult circumstances.
I don’t want to justify it or excuse it, nor do I want to point fingers because I know at times when I have been under great pressure, I have made mistakes as well.
What I think is important is we learn the lessons from our response to the pandemic as a whole and one of the most important lessons to learn is yes, the NHS did extremely well, and found a bed for every Covid patient who needed one, but it was only able to do that by switching off a lot of other services which is why we have the huge backlog we have today.
What we need to do is to find a way that for a future pandemic the NHS is able to carry on with its cancer services, its support for people with strokes and heart attacks. That’s one of the reasons why I ran the London Marathon with my brother, to raise money for the new cancer centre at The Royal Surrey. Part of that is expanding our capacity to treat diseases like cancer so they don’t get interrupted not only by a pandemic, but when the NHS has winter pressures, for example.
You’re in charge of the country’s finances but every day we read about more people going on strike, wanting more money. What’s the answer?
When you face issues like this wave of public-sector strikes, it’s really important to understand the root cause of the anger felt by nurses, the people working on the railways, paramedics and so on.
The root cause is that salaries do not go as far as they used to because it has been eaten away by inflation.
The best thing I can do for them is to bring down inflation and the plan I set out in the autumn statement will bring down inflation from 11 per cent now to just under four per cent to this time next year.
That’s the single biggest thing I can do for those people.
What that means, unfortunately, is not giving people pay rises that lock in high rates of inflation, it means we have to go through a difficult period. Not being able to give those pay rises does not mean we do not think people are working incredibly hard, it’s just there’s no point trying to solve a problem by doing something that will make it worse.
That’s the very difficult situation we have been in. The long-term solution is to make sure our energy prices can’t be affected by crazy things done by Vladimir Putin and that’s why we need to invest in nuclear power and renewable and so on.
But I do recognise it’s a very difficult period and people are working very hard. Everyone is immensely grateful to people who work in the emergency services and the public sector. We want to support them and my job is to put the economy back on its feet so we can buy resources for the NHS and our schools and our public services, and then hopefully we won’t have these very difficult disputes in the future.
The two most powerful people in the government are you and Rishi Sunak, and you both have huge personal wealth. It’s said you’re worth £17m and it’s well known Rishi’s family is much more. How can you relate to ordinary people when you don’t have to think about eating and heating – you have very different values.
Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia. I’m really proud that I did not inherit wealth – every penny I made was because I set up and ran my own business, and if we are going to be successful as a country we need to encourage more people to do that.
It’s enormously helpful for me now, being in charge of the country’s finances, that I have known what it’s like to be at the coalface trying to get a business of the ground without any capital. I want to make sure that what I do makes it easier for the next generation of entrepreneurs.