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Jeremy Hunt Brought in From the Cold as UK's New Finance Minister

Britain's new finance minister Jeremy Hunt arrives at Downing Street in central London, Oct. 14, 2022.
Britain's new finance minister Jeremy Hunt arrives at Downing Street in central London, Oct. 14, 2022.

Jeremy Hunt was named Britain's new finance minister on Friday, the latest senior ministerial role for the self-proclaimed entrepreneur regarded by many in his Conservative Party as a safe pair of hands but whose days in top jobs had seemed over.

After being the longest-serving health secretary in British history and stints running the foreign office and culture ministry, Hunt returns from government exile after two failed bids to become Britain's prime minister himself.

While he made it to the run-off to replace Theresa May before losing to Boris Johnson in 2019, he fared much less well in the leadership contest this year in which Liz Truss triumphed.

"It’s become obvious to me you only get one big shot at this, and I had mine in 2019," he said after he was eliminated from the running, appearing to concede that his ambitions to get to the top of politics had been ended.

He also later backed Truss' rival Rishi Sunak, and he was overlooked for a ministerial role as she chose a top team of close allies and people who had backed her.

However, he now becomes the figure to whom she has turned to become Britain's fourth finance minister in as many months, tasked with reassuring the markets after his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng's economic plans caused turmoil.

It is also an attempt to reach out to angry lawmakers in her ruling Conservative Party who have voiced discontent with her performance just a month into the job, with polls showing the opposition Labor Party as many as 30 points ahead.

"The appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor is a wise choice," Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin said on Twitter. "He is trusted and respected across parliament. We must now be calm. Rash talk of ditching the PM, or calls for a general election, will not calm the financial markets."

Tax slashing

Hunt has a history of supporting tax cuts, and Truss said she views him as someone who shares her same aim of creating a high growth, low tax economy.

"He's one of the most experienced and widely respected government ministers and parliamentarians and he shares my convictions and ambitions for our country," she told reporters.

Truss was speaking as she announced she would keep a planned increase in corporation tax paid by businesses, scrapping plans to keep it at 19% after negative market reaction to last month's announcement of her and Kwarteng's economic package.

During his own failed bid to succeed Johnson, Hunt had pledged to cut corporation tax to 15%, help ignite the stagnating British economy and remove business rates, the charge levied on commercial properties, for five years for economically struggling areas.

"We need to start up Britain now," he told the Sunday Telegraph when he announced his candidacy. "That means sending a signal that in the first chapter in our post-Brexit future, we’re going to be the most pro-business economy in the Western world."

Ironically, though, while Truss has said she will press ahead with a cut to income tax, Hunt said at the time that could wait. He also promised to press ahead with a plan to raise the National Insurance payroll tax to fund health spending — a measure that Truss will reverse.

Commentators said he was faced with some of the same problems as his predecessor — how to balance the books to make billions of pounds of tax cuts while maintaining public spending.

Government and private sector

The son of a senior naval officer and later admiral, he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, and he then worked for a management consultancy firm before going to Japan for two years where he taught English and learned to speak fluent Japanese.

On his return, he set up an educational publishing business and was later elected to parliament in 2005 holding a number of government roles since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

He was the culture minister who oversaw the initial proposed buyout of BSkyB by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, during which time he was accused of being too close to the media mogul. He is best known in Britain, though, for his stint as health minister, a role he held from 2012-2018, longer than any other politician.

He later became foreign secretary, until his unsuccessful 2019 leadership bid, and during the Johnson premiership he voiced criticism of some aspects of the handling of the COVID pandemic.
Other critics said some of the problems that the state-run health service faced were a consequence of his role as health minister.

However, his own assessment of what has been his biggest error was something much closer to home.

During a trip to China in July in 2018, he mistakenly described his wife Lucia, who hails from China, as being Japanese. Asked in the leadership contest the following year what was his greatest weakness, he replied: "Some might say as foreign secretary it's getting my wife's nationality wrong."

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