By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
Could Jeremy Hunt actually make it over the line to become the next tenant of No. 10 Downing Street? In the battle between the current and former foreign secretaries, Hunt and Boris Johnson — the diplomat and the ringmaster — he is certainly giving it a go, doggedly tearing around the country in an effort to win support.
It is getting closer. The latest YouGov opinion pollindicates that 28 percent of those surveyed believed Hunt would be a good prime minister, as opposed to 25 percent for his opponent. Generally, Hunt is preferred 41 to 29 percent. The problem is that this is the view of the general public. Among Conservative voters, Johnson is ahead 48 to 39 percent. Hunt is the rank outsider, but he has battered the seemingly impregnable Johnson aura.
The campaigns have also been almost exclusively single issue, with the B-word dominating every husting and interview. But there is life beyond Brexit, with other major issues lurking in the undergrowth. They must not be ignored as Britain determines who will helm the ship over the next few years. What can the rest of the world expect from a Prime Minister Johnson or Hunt?
Whilst neither are unknown entities on the world stage, having both served as foreign secretary, they have only had relatively short periods in the role.
Would the rest of the world prefer the feel-good, risk-taking Johnson or the safe pair of hands? So many electorates grapple with this. Theresa May got the safe pair of hands vote in 2016, whereas Donald Trump’s hands were anything but safe across the Atlantic. Trump and Johnson shake things up, causing people to view politics and their countries in a different light. They disrupt and pull people out of their comfort zones. This brings on debates that otherwise could be brushed under a huge carpet. May’s caution, however, did not did lead to a calamity-free term in office. Her aversion to risk hindered her and presented her as inflexible, while also incapable of big-picture strategizing. Perhaps the most damning, if rather unfair, line about Hunt is that he is “Theresa May in trousers.”
But what sort of risk-taker is Johnson? Reckless risk-taking is the charge leveled against him. The question is are the risks carefully calculated and tested against evidence and informed debate? He is also a gaffe-prone maverick, with the most recent example a reported moment when, as foreign secretary, he allegedly described the French as “turds.” He cannot remember saying this, which is hardly a denial. It is a fair bet most European leaders are hoping for Hunt.
How would these candidates handle the Middle East? Unlike May, who had pretty much a blank slate prior to her elevation, these two do have a modest track record. Johnson has occasionally stirred things up, not least with comments about powers in the region stoking proxy wars. Hunt has pressed on the Yemen issue and worked hard on the issue of getting Iran to release British nationals such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Infamously, it was Johnson’s carelessness in front of a parliamentary committee that gave the Iranian regime an excuse to extend her detention.
Both would be friendly with Israel. Hunt praised Germany’s recent law equating Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel as anti-Semitic. Johnson, an ex-kibbutznik, on a visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories described supporters of BDS as “a bunch of corduroy-jacketed lefty academics.” But, once again, given the distractions elsewhere, neither is likely to redraft existing policy positions.
As for Iran, neither has deviated much from the current UK policy. Notably, Hunt did not rule out the possibility of joining the US in action on Tehran, but thought this was unlikely. Under him, the Foreign Office has pursued a policy of de-escalation. Most recently he stated: “I cannot envisage any situation where they request or we agree to any moves to go to war.” Johnson may think differently and may be even more determined than Hunt to cozy up to President Trump.
Overseas aid is in the cross hairs of Tory supporters who believe it is wasteful and bloated. Johnson has declared his support for closing the Department for International Development (DFID) and to cut aid by making it dependent not on need but on cohering to UK foreign and security objectives. Hunt last year expressed his frustration that Britain did not get any credit for its near £3 billion ($3.8 billion) annual aid to Africa. Yet Hunt has not committed to closing DFID and it is not clear what levels of aid spending he would endorse.
Islamophobia did crop up, but both candidates appear to want to swat this away. Cajoled by a former candidate, Sajid Javid, live on television to agree to an external independent inquiry into the rising levels of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, both have been Trappist on the issue since. It is not a good look for the party as a whole, and risks getting in the way of the Labour Party shredding itself over anti-Semitism. But then, when pressed, Johnson redefined the pledge from a specific inquiry on Islamophobia to a general one on racism, including anti-Semitism. He has more of a vested interest in diverting this as he himself would be in the firing line of any inquiry given his comments likening women in burkas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.”
In the end, the policy differences between the two may not be particularly seismic. Johnson and Hunt agree on many areas. Conservative Party voters will have to decide more on style: The competent managerial style of Hunt versus the unpredictable force of nature that is Johnson. Only three weeks to go until they give us their decision.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech