Speculation is growing that Jeremy Hunt is being lined up to become Chancellor, with Philip Hammond replacing him as Health Secretary in a move that would leave Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office. A senior Tory figure with knowledge of the plan said the job swap is being actively considered as way of solving Theresa May’s “Boris problem”.
Hammond and Johnson have been at loggerheads for months over Brexit, with the Chancellor irritating Tory Brexiteers by repeatedly warning about the financial and economic cost of leaving the EU. Johnson has risked the sack by publicly calling for Brexit “red lines” in a move that was regarded as an act of subordination by many Tory backbenchers and angered the Prime Minister’s closest allies.
If Hammond was to be removed as Chancellor and Johnson remained in post as Foreign Secretary it would be seen as a major victory for the cabinet’s most prominent Brexit campaigner. Rumours of an imminent reshuffle first began to emerge early this month – although the Budget takes place on November 22nd and it may be difficult to replace the Chancellor before it takes place. Hammond is unlikely to react well to being removed from No 11. But the Tory source claimed the Chancellor does not have a big enough powerbase on the backbenches to be able to resist a move to the Department of Health. “I don’t think he’d resign and walk away”, he said. The chancellor is admired by vocal Tory Remainers, but they are relatively few in number.
A Hammond job swap with Hunt would leave Johnson emboldened but he would not be completely free to push his vision for Brexit while he remained subject to the constraints of collective Cabinet responsibility. In the run up to Tory conference earlier this month, it was widely rumoured he would be sacked by May. That could have paved the way for Johnson to challenge a Prime Minister whose authority has been catastrophically weakened by her failure to win a Parliamentary majority in June – and is one reason May is likely to leave him in situ. Hunt, who has been Health Secretary for five years, is regarded by Tories as a safe pair of hands who can be trusted to manage the nation’s finances at a critical moment in UK history. Economic growth has slowed due to the uncertainty created by Brexit and big business is demanding greater clarity about the likely terms of a deal with the EU.
Hunt is regarded as a member of the modernising wing of the Tory party and he was close to David Cameron and George Osborne. He campaigned to Remain in the EU. Despite holding one of the most challenging jobs in government at a time when the NHS is stretched to breaking point, he has made relatively few political mistakes. The closest Hunt came to being forced out of the government was when questions arose about his suitability to be Culture Secretary when Rupert Murdoch’s Fox first tried to gain full control of Sky in 2012. His advisor was forced to resign over the way the bid was handled but Hunt survived, in part because Murdoch withdrew his bid when the phone-hacking scandal broke.
Hammond is renowned for his attention to detail – his party trick is to ask for a random date in the future and immediately name the day of the week on which it falls. Tory sources say he is well suited to the task of managing the nation’s health system and could be persuaded to take on the job if he was given free reign to make major changes to the way it is run. But May will need to satisfy herself that he will accept a move before risking a high-profile resignation that could further destablise her government.