The final furlong: Johnsons the favourite, but Jeremy is still in the Hunt

26 June 2019 - by Anna Mercer

As the race for number 10 continues amidst questions over Boris Johnson’s personal life and his refusal to go head to head with Jeremy Hunt, we take a look at their track records in office.

Both contenders for the role of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have held prominent positions within the British government. The former is best known for his eight year tenure as Mayor of London, while the latter received most publicity when serving as Health Secretary. Johnson was also Hunt’s direct predecessor in his current assignment as Foreign Secretary.

When Johnson announced his candidacy for the Tory premiership, he highlighted his record as London mayor (2008-2016) as evidence that he was up to the task. An impressive statistic was peddled regarding crime, as he stated that murder rates in London were cut by 50% under his watch. While the decrease was not as high as this, the murder rate did fall from 155 in 2008 to a low of 94 in 2014. However, total knife offences were only marginally lower at the end of his eight years.

Some key actions taken by Johnson have had varying levels of success and were, at times, argued to be vanity projects by observers. These included the “Boris Bike” cycle scheme, which has had huge uptake (10.3m users in 2016) but is expensive to maintain, and the unsuccessful Garden Bridge project which saw £53.5m spent before being cancelled.

Hunt’s time as Health Secretary was similarly mixed as he courted a great deal of controversy but survived this to become the longest-serving incumbent in NHS history (six years). However, he will be remembered mostly for cuts made and the fallout with junior doctors. 

Health budgets have typically risen by about 4% above inflation annually, but this figure fell to 1% under Hunt. This led to key targets being missed in several areas. In another money-saving endeavour, junior doctor contracts were changed with a view to delivering a seven-day NHS by 2020, which resulted in a prolonged campaign of industrial action and walkouts.

Hunt, however, did enact several less controversial policies in developing new systems for rating hospitals and conducting inspections, as well as introducing the first national targets for mental health treatment waiting times.

Both candidates have substantial experience in decision-making and dealing with controversy in high office.  This may suggest a level of experience and resilience that would be helpful in serving as Prime Minister. However, what could the election of Johnson or Hunt mean for Northern Ireland?

Neither candidate have much by way of track record in Northern Ireland affairs, although Boris did attend a DUP dinner in his capacity as Foreign Secretary, suggesting a relationship exists between him and the party which he might come to rely on if he succeeds in his bid to become Prime Minister.

Unlike former contender for the role, Michael Gove, neither Hunt nor Johnson have expressed a desire to become involved in any talks process, however it is possible that the incoming Prime Minister may make some changes to the cabinet, with a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland likely.

Regardless of who is at the helm of the NIO, legislation introduced by Karen Bradley states that if there is no political agreement in place by the end of August, an election must be called. How any new Secretary of State responds to this will set the tone for their tenure in Stormont House.

Regardless of their investment in resolving the domestic politics of Northern Ireland, the outstanding issue of the border in Brexit negotiations means that the incoming Prime Minister will have to find a solution to this problem which ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland, meaning they cannot avoid making Northern Ireland a key part of their political leadership.

However, the fact that the EU have consistently said they will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement means this will require them to do a U-turn on their current position. 

Brexit will undoubtedly form the basis of how each candidate is perceived by their electorate. A common theme has been their inconsistency relating to this issue, exemplified by Johnson’s shift from describing May’s deal as “vassal state stuff” to eventually backing her Withdrawal Agreement at the third time of asking. 

This is likely to matter less to Conservative members than Hunt’s past positions, however. Having originally voted Remain and suggested at one point that he was open to a second referendum, as well as describing no deal  as “a mistake we would regret for generations" before backtracking, it is difficult to see the Leave-leaning Tory membership backing him over Johnson.