If Jeremy Hunt succeeds Theresa May as prime minister he will be following in her footsteps in more ways than one. Like May – and unlike his Conservative leadership rival Boris Johnson – Hunt advocated remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum. He has since reversed his position and sought to make a positive case for leaving the EU. But how exactly does this convert to making Brexit a reality – something the current prime minister singularly failed to manage?
It is not just his dramatic U-turn on EU membership that makes it hard to analyse where Hunt stands. Far less showy than the preening Johnson – an obvious distinction that dates back to their time as contemporaries at Oxford – the foreign secretary nevertheless shares an unfortunate habit of making clumsy public statements. He once likened the EU to the Soviet Union, arguing that “if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish, it will grow, and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape”.
Such imagery goes down well at a Conservative Party conference, but antagonises EU leaders. His error in referring to Slovenia as a former vassal state of the Soviet Union raised further doubts about his knowledge of European politics.
In government, Hunt fully supported the withdrawal agreement that proved May’s undoing. Now he is running for prime minister, the mask has slipped and he’s revealed himself to be a “technologist” – that is, he supports a technological solution for keeping an open border on the island of Ireland.
The domestic political benefit of this stance is obvious. Conservative MPs who oppose the withdrawal agreement, as well as their DUP allies from Northern Ireland, have long railed against the so-called backstop arrangement. The original idea was to have Northern Ireland follow EU rules to avoid a hard customs border. UK pressure turned this into a deal whereby the UK would form a common customs territory with the EU, pending a future comprehensive trade treaty. Neither of these options could command a Tory-DUP majority in parliament.
Committing to a technological solution to the border question necessarily entails renegotiating the withdrawal agreement with the EU. Hunt has pledged to do this and has ruled out holding a fourth vote on May’s deal. But such a promise means nothing without a strategy and a deadline. The problem here is that the EU controls the clock and has again ruled out changing the backstop arrangements. Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar has recently reiterated this message.
Dependence on Brussels explains why Johnson and Hunt are tussling over what to do if parliament still hasn’t voted to accept terms of EU withdrawal by October 31. Johnson has made the most of saying there can be no further extension precisely because Hunt is vaguer on this point.
This vagueness stems from Hunt’s awareness that parliament is opposed to a no-deal outcome. If the next prime minister tried to force a no-deal Brexit, parliament could decide to stop him by triggering a general election. And that election would probably not go well for the current party of government. In Hunt’s own words, the Tories would be “crucified” if they faced voters before delivering Brexit. Having also rejected all talk of a second referendum, his room for manoeuvre is inherently limited.
Haven’t we been here before?
If all this sounds familiar that’s because it is a repeat of the Theresa May playbook. May promised frictionless trade, an independent trade policy and no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. To get a deal over the line she had to backtrack on regaining sovereignty over customs policy, allaying EU fears about the Irish border.
Yet when it comes to the UK-EU standoff under her successor – to borrow her memorable words – “nothing has changed”. Brussels does not believe a technological fix for the border is ready.
The whole EU renegotiation angle of the Hunt-Johnson contest is therefore phoney. Each campaign fundamentally rests on the assumption that a change of leadership will unlock a better deal. May discovered to her cost that the EU privileges the interests of Ireland and the integrity of the single market above cutting a deal on terms suitable to pass through the UK parliament. A change in prime minister will do nothing to change this equation.
Hunt is basically admitting as much (as is Johnson) by placing so much emphasis on what he would do in the event of leaving the EU without a deal. He has unveiled a ten-point plan to mitigate the effects of a no-deal outcome. Superficially, this sounds like a new strategy, but in reality it is a reversion to May’s “no deal is better than a bad a deal”. Jeremy Hunt is thus set to take the Brexit process straight back to square one.