Artillery Row

Walking a tightrope

It is not easy for Jeremy Hunt to toe the government line without falling off

“I’m going to speak tonight as Jeremy Hunt, and I’m not always going to take the government line.” In a comfortable church hall on a Monday evening in Godalming, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is walking a tightrope between supporting the party of which he’s been a leading member for most of the last 14 years and disowning it in order to hold onto his seat. 

He’s tanned from three weeks knocking on doors, and slim from his running regime, so slim that his belt scrunches up the top of his jeans. With his denim shirt and trainers, he could be a keen vicar explaining the infallibility of scripture. Or, if he senses the congregation isn’t in the mood for that, its fallibility. Hunt tends to hold lightly onto eternal truths.

He’s campaigning like his job depends upon it because it does. The boundaries of his seat have been redrawn, but the estimate is that in 2019 the Conservatives would have taken more than 50 per cent of the vote here. This time, YouGov is predicting it goes to the Lib Dems. Chancellors of the Exchequer do not normally lose their seats, but this is not a normal election.

By a happy coincidence, the Lib Dem candidate is holding his own public meeting on the other side of the high street from Hunt, a four-minute walk away. This affords the opportunity to watch the two men, if not quite together, then in very close proximity. 

I started with the Lib Dem. Paul Follows is a 38-year-old leader of the local council. His meeting is in a small room in the community centre. There are around 40 people present, and despite not being young, I’m one of the youngest people there. T-shirts in the room announce confidence in both God’s love and Arsenal’s ability to hold onto a one-nil lead. The woman next to me says that she’s never been to a political meeting before. 

Follows has a relaxed, chatty manner. He describes finding the Liberal Democrats in the wake of the Brexit referendum in the way other people talk about going on an Alpha course after a bad break-up. His campaigning is resolutely local: members of the local Scouts group got sick after swimming in the river, the area needs places for teenagers to meet up. 

I slip out and cross the road to Godalming Baptist Church, where Hunt has been going for 25 minutes. It’s a bigger room, with twice as many people, older than the Lib Dem crowd. Also there, I will learn on Tuesday morning, is a mole, recording Hunt’s words. The next day’s papers will carry some of his less than helpful comments.

“I really believe that we need to have a proper railway system, including high speed rail,” he tells his audience. Is there a party that has been in government for a while that has cancelled such a project? Yes, he acknowledges, there is, but the problem with the high speed line was that “two-thirds of it was in tunnels”. 

Was there a reason that the Conservative government chose to build through Conservative constituencies in this much more expensive way? If he can think of one, Hunt doesn’t share it with us. “People are able to delay high-speed rail projects,” he sighs. Which people? Do we know their names? Did any of them sit near him in the House of Commons? 

In Surrey on a wonderful summer evening we are able to experience once again Hot Dog Toryism

With the focus of the election on future promises, it’s been a while since we had the delight of listening to Conservatives complaining about what a mess the country is in, but here in Surrey on a wonderful summer evening we are able to experience once again Hot Dog Toryism: the practice of standing with an empty petrol can in the middle of a burned-out building and announcing that you’re just trying to find the guys who did this. 

Isn’t some of the mess down to Liz Truss, someone asks. “I’m not going to stand here and say that there weren’t mistakes made,” Hunt says, hands on hips, a stern vicar who has learned about the bottle of vodka that was sneaked onto the youth group’s camping trip. 

Compared to what we get in this election’s buttoned-up TV debates, much of what Hunt says is frank. He’s changed his mind, he says, and now supports housebuilding: “People who grow up locally can’t afford to get on the housing ladder here.” Has this been true for at least 20 years? Probably. Would he rather you didn’t hold that against him? Definitely. 

He has an appealing reasonableness to him. When a constituent says she fears that Labour would take Britain back into the European Union, he reassures her that they’ve said they won’t. This is a fairness to an absent opponent with which few in his party would trouble themselves. It’s not hard to see why Boris Johnson wanted to face him in the final round of the Tory leadership contest.

Of course there’s nothing that makes you sympathise with politicians like hearing from voters. Take the man who tells the Chancellor that he doesn’t like the Conservative record and wants the government to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza, but nevertheless feels the Tories are “the right answer”. Hunt needs every vote he can get, but it must have taken great strength not to point out that the Liberal Democrats existed and indeed were holding a meeting just across the road, right at that very moment. 

What will he miss if the Tories lose, he’s asked, and he replies that he likes living in Downing Street. “It was Boris Johnson’s flat before it was mine,” he says, thoughtfully. “It needed a lot of cleaning up.” Again, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sympathy for the man.

What about those 14 years in government? “I’ve often thought about this,” Hunt says, before concluding that, on the whole, he’s done a pretty good job. 

Is this the government line? These days, who knows?

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