In the Hunt: Midlands backing for underdog candidate

Patrick Burns
Political editor, Midlands

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionConservative leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt has support from several Worcestershire MPs

"I'll give him the fight of his life"

The self-proclaimed "underdog" wasn't pulling his punches when he opened his regional campaign for the Conservative leadership in Worcestershire.

And Jeremy Hunt does not lack for influential support in this part of the country.

Local neighbours and ministerial colleagues Harriett Baldwin MP, West Worcestershire, and Robin Walker MP, Worcester, are among his most influential backers.

The former minister Mark Garnier MP, Conservative, in nearby Wyre Forest, and Mark Pawsey MP, Rugby, are also among his high-profile cheerleaders.

Perhaps most significantly of all, just across the border in Shropshire, the Ludlow MP Philip Dunne is managing Mr Hunt's campaign.

In fairness I should point out Boris Johnson also has his own very substantial bloc of support here as well: Bill Cash MP, Stone; Michael Fabricant, Lichfield; Owen Paterson, North Shropshire; Laurence Robertson, Tewkesbury; and Gavin Williamson, South Staffordshire, are all firmly in his camp.

My blog post last week sketched-out how a likely Johnson government might affect our part of the country.

So this time, let's consider the prospects for his would-be nemesis.

High-speed high-risk strategies

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image captionJeremy Hunt is a "strong supporter" of HS2, despite many people's concerns about the project

Mr Hunt's opening gambit when he began his regional campaign in the Midlands was on High Speed Rail.

"I'm a supporter, a very strong supporter," he told us, reminding us his opponent had written in his newspaper column he would scrap it.

Mr Hunt went on: "The next prime minister must govern for the whole country."

At the first of 16 regional hustings, in Birmingham last weekend, Mr Johnson was forced to clarify his position on HS2: as prime minister, he told us he'd order a review, and left open the possibility it could be scrapped by Christmas.

It's a Marmite issue: Jeremy Hunt's support for it may warm the hearts of Labour's 'big city' leaders in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

But it will be far less favourably received by most Conservative members in counties including Warwickshire and Staffordshire whose support he urgently needs but whose opposition to HS2 remains generally undimmed.

So how much of a long-shot is the current foreign secretary against his predecessor?

Although Boris Johnson remains the odds-on favourite, Betway's Alan Alger says over the past few days he has drifted from 1-20 to 2-9, while Jeremy Hunt's odds have shortened from 12-1 to 10-3.

He goes on: "The fear for Boris Johnson backers is that there's always a chance of something calamitous happening."

Which means there's a significant element of risk involved in both campaigns.

Brexit battle lines

image copyrightReuters
image captionOn the face of it, Boris Johnson is much more bullish about a so-called "hard" Brexit than his rival

Many of the grassroot Conservative activists who will decide this election are still seething over the government's failure to deliver Brexit on time.

The MPs for Meriden and Rugby, respectively Dame Caroline Spelman and Mark Pawsey, were both at the forefront of the campaign last January "to take no deal off the table".

Since then, for their trouble, they've both faced calls for votes of no confidence among members of their constituency parties.

Talk is cheap. Nothing has come of any of this for either of them.

But the underlying sentiment could hardly be clearer, especially in a region which registered the highest overall proportion of Leave votes.

On the face of it, there is a clear dividing line between Brexit-supporting Boris Johnson, who is much more bullish about a so-called "hard" Brexit, and Jeremy Hunt, who campaigned for Remain and is now generally seen to be more committed to negotiating a deal with the remaining 27 EU member nations.

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image captionThe key tests for both contenders revolve around whether or not they would keep open the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal

But on closer inspection their respective positions appear much more nuanced.

Mr Hunt did his best to persuade us in Worcestershire the other day that "people no longer care" how he and other political leaders voted three years ago.

We'll see.

The key tests for both contenders revolve around whether or not they would keep open the possibility of leaving without a deal and whether or not they are committed to the current leaving date of 31 October.

Mr Johnson refuses to rule out "no deal". But he goes on: "I don't want 'no deal' as the outcome of the talks. I don't want us to leave with a World Trade Organisation solution as my number one priority."

He has also watered down his commitment to that Halloween exit date saying only it was "eminently feasible". Mindful, perhaps, of the electoral tightrope he is walking, and not wanting to give his core support the suggestion he may be wobbling, he later issued a clarification: he "will not rest until until we get out by October 31st"!

He is not alone in reserving some wriggle room.

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image captionBoth Tory leadership contenders agree they do not want a general election before Brexit is resolved

Jeremy Hunt is keenly aware of the cost of a "no deal" exit, emphasising the plight of a Shropshire sheep farmer who told him he would lose his business in the event of new, post "no deal" tariffs.

"I've not met a single European leader who doesn't want to avoid 'no deal'," he says.

Then comes the inevitable "but"!

Mr Hunt told the hustings meeting in Birmingham if it comes down to a choice between leaving without a deal or failing to deliver on the referendum, then "as a last resort" and "with a heavy heart" it would have to be "no deal".

And on that departure date, Mr Hunt has said he "would leave" but he would want to avoid "the disruption of 'no deal'" if there was a case for delaying for a short period.

So there may not be as much of a gulf between them as first appears.

And they certainly agree there should be no general election before Brexit is resolved.

Mr Hunt says that would be "suicidal", even though high-profile figures on the pro-EU wing of his own party, including the former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, are warning they would vote the government down and risk triggering one, if it helped avoid 'no deal'.

One marked difference between them is beyond dispute.

Mr Hunt's supporters say whatever he lacks in charisma he more than makes up for in experience: Nine continuous years in the Cabinet, compared with Boris Johnson's tumultuous two years as foreign secretary.

But as one of my longer-serving BBC colleagues once observed, ruefully: "Sometimes the best experience is no experience at all."