Updated: Oct 22
On Monday 2nd of October 2023 Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt took to the stage at the Conservative party conference. The polls do not look good for his government and, whilst perhaps not as dire as the reports last year suggested, the economy remains in a relatively poor position. It would not be unfair to credit our rather dull, technocratic Chancellor with this; the markets reacted well to the “safe pair of hands” after the agonisingly disastrous Chancellorship of his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng. However, as is often the case in politics, Hunt will find little thanks; regardless of his performance, much of the general public will probably react similarly to how Miriam Margolyes did in her radio 4 interview shortly after his appointment.
Undoubtedly, whilst comfortable behind a podium, Hunt is a relatively wooden speaker; lacking the charisma of some of his colleagues. Indeed, this lack of skill in public speaking and preferring to come across as professional and managerial contributed to his losing the race to succeed Theresa May to the infinitely more entertaining and charismatic Boris Johnson. Having performed even more poorly in the leadership race to succeed Johnson Hunt can safely assume he will never rise above the position of Chancellor. Perhaps partly due to that fact, the Chancellor that took the stage yesterday, in spite of the bad omens and the vultures circling in the sky waiting to take his and Rishi Sunak’s jobs, seemed calm, collected and in control of the situation.
Keeping track of inflation was the key of the speech, and centre of a wider ideological battle within the Conservative Party. He argued that his strategy is working, comparing his resolution for continuing it to that of Margaret Thatcher’s (who, despite having passed away over a decade ago remains the most important figure in the party). Hunt went on: “when we halve inflation, that’s not a 1% income tax cut, it’s a 5% boost to incomes compared to if it stayed the same”. This was in open defiance to the argument made by Liz Truss at a fringe event who called for drastic tax cuts, particularly to corporation tax. CNBC even flatteringly described Truss’ ideas as being from the doctrine of “Reaganomics”.
Conservative leaders have always sought the approval of and comparisons to the mighty figures of Thatcher and Reagan, whose legacies cast a long shadow over the modern political debate. Both Hunt and Truss have sought to encourage comparison; Truss particularly succeeded when, as foreign secretary, she emulated Thatcher by appearing in a tank. The truth is, both fall somewhat short of Thatcher’s legacy, it is more than playing dress up, and more than merely having resolve to continue with tough decisions. In calling for tax cuts, Truss is undoubtedly continuing with a tenancy of Thatcherism. Thatcher did cut taxes, however, she also raised VAT in order to fund this contrary to Liz Truss’ mini budget which was quickly repealed when it became clear it was unsustainable. Famously, Thatcher described her economic platform as “sound money”, with balanced budgets.
Similarly to Hunt, she also put a greater level of importance on inflation, particularly when she first came to office, adopting monetarism. However, Thatcher discreetly dropped monetarism when it became apparent it was not working, using her skill and guile as a politician to cover up a considerable change in policy direction. Despite her ideological sense of purpose, Thatcher was a far more pragmatic Prime Minister than she let on, with a keen sense for what she could and could not achieve. Whilst Truss evidently had an ability to find a support base within the Conservative party, she failed drastically when it came to the nation as a whole, continuing to have a low approval rate despite being out of office for almost a year.
The fact is, neither are a reincarnation of Thatcher. Neither should be entirely the same as Thatcher either. What issues were faced in 1979 will naturally be different today, and as such require a different approach. Hunt touched upon his and Sunak’s big vision for the UK economy, that being to “make Britain a global leader in the industries of the future”. It seems only natural for Britain to embrace technology as a key component of its modern economy as an advanced nation with some of the oldest and best educational centres on the planet. Oxford, Cambridge, Saint Andrew’s and a healthy dosage of Russel Group Universities continue to be ranked as some of the best in the world.
Ultimately, the British economy is actually relatively robust. It is easy to forget, living on our sheltered little island that actually, the whole world’s economy is having a rough period at the moment. Whilst Hunt cannot count on sympathy from the electorate because of this, he does honestly deserve it. Any government would be struggling to manage the economic situation right now. Margolyes was perhaps more fair and accurate when she remarked to Hunt that he has, “a hell of a job”. I could perhaps also observe that given the potential for mispronunciation of Hunt’s name, Margolyes chose her expletives poorly. Hunt is cursed with an unfortunate surname, though perhaps more fortunate than the likes of Sir Sitwell Sitwell baronet, or Dingle, the elder brother of former Labour leader Michael Foot.
Hunt is not doing everything as Chancellor I might perhaps encourage, however, he is doing a good job. His sound money approach, tackling inflation, maintaining market faith in the UK government are all commendable. No, he is not an especially remarkable individual, though experienced and competent, but that probably makes him perfect for the task ahead. In economically difficult situations, the less remarkable individuals, the safe pair of hands and someone willing to listen to the brilliantly intelligent economists who work at the treasury are exactly what is needed. On Monday, he was robust, professional, and in command; just as he needed to be.