Skip to main content

Why does "sensible" Jeremy Hunt reduce some journalists to labradors?

Sweetly tell a labrador it’s a prick, and its tail will wag as if you said you loved it. This is how many political journos acted after Hunt's first media round.

October 17 2022, 15.36pm

Bulldogs, lapdogs, poodles – political journalists are no strangers to canine metaphors. But the reaction to the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as chancellor brings a new breed to mind. Some of our colleagues, it seems, are labradors. By that, I don’t mean that they defecate in the street – although I have doubts about one or two – but that they are more acutely attuned to tone over substance. Sweetly tell a labrador that it’s a prick, and its tail will wag as delightedly as it would if you said you loved it. Present most hacks with a politician in a suit making the right noises with an impression of ‘professionalism’ and they’re as quick to show their bellies as any domesticated hound. 

The defenestration of Kwasi Kwarteng from the Treasury in favour of Jeremy Hunt provided a perfect example of this labrador tendency. On Saturday morning, as the new Chancellor toured the TV and radio studios, the i paper’s policy editor, Jane Merrick, tweeted

“Listening to Hunt in interviews this morning is like reaching calm blue sea after weeks in a force 10 storm.” 

For The New European, Lionel Barber – the former FT editor – wrote

“Hunt, a former health and foreign secretary, is viewed as a far safer pair of hands than his high-rolling Etonian predecessor.” 

And in the eldritch hellscape of The Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley said

“.. if there is one thing Mr Hunt is extremely good at (and I am not being sarcastic) it is reassurance. He has an air of calm benevolence and serious dedication that is just what is needed if there is to be a restoration of belief in the sanity of government.” 

The calm that Merrick detects is the calm of a bank robber whispering to the teller that he has a gun; Hunt spent that media round making it clear that he intends to implement a programme of cuts that could see as much as £40bn of public spending slashed, but he did so with the tone of someone very reasonable. And we can expect more tail-wagging when he reasonably defends these cuts today in the Commons. 

When Barber parrots the claim that Hunt is “a far safer pair of hands” and notes Kwarteng’s Eton background, he forgets to mention the new Chancellor went to another public school — Charterhouse — and, like Kwarteng to Oxford; so he can hardly be described as less privileged than his predecessor. Also absent are memories of Hunt’s previous performance in government jobs: going to war against junior doctors as health secretary, in a tenure also remembered for the rejection of a call for PPE to be stockpiled for the event of a pandemic; or that time when Hunt the foreign secretary managed to tell the Chinese Foreign Minister, in China, that his Chinese wife was Japanese. From major oversights with devastating consequences to gaffes, strong and stable it is not.

Another, deeper aspect of labradorism can be gleaned from Daley’s request for a “restoration of belief in the sanity of government”. It’s not that government should actually be sane but that its representatives should be able to project the appearance of sanity. As long as Hunt puts chocolates on the pillows, it will be less perturbing that the hotel is collapsing. 

If you’ve ever tried taking a comfort toy from an actual labrador, you won’t be surprised some of the labradorians doubled down when criticised. After Merrick’s initial tweet attracted a fair degree of consternation (one person  wrote: “Jesus, do you hear yourself?”) she followed up

“This is to everyone quote tweeting my original tweet about Hunt, who would presumably rather the economy crashed into the floor so they can be proven right than accept that the change of course by the new chancellor will bring some stability *now*. There’s no general election yet. I guess they’d rather we had 15% interest rates and homes repossessed just for the ideological purity of it all.” 

But that misses the point; the problem with being reassured by Hunt’s tone is that “the change of course” he’s advocating appears to be avoiding one iceberg and heading directly for another. With the government now planning further cuts to stricken public services, treating the fact that Hunt has dusted off the Cameron-era soundbite about a “compassionate Conservative government” as significant – as Merrick did – feels ludicrous, especially as we know how brutal Conservative compassion turned out to be in its original iteration. 

On Saturday, Miriam Margoyles effortlessly managed to cause a meltdown in the Today programme studio after crossing paths with Hunt and saying live on air:  

“When I saw him there, I just said: ‘What a hell of a job, the best of luck.’ And what I really wanted to say was ‘Fuck you, bastard,’ but you can’t say that.”

There was an honesty in that comment that is painfully absent from the political press’ presentation of Hunt as a “big beast” and a “safe pair of hands”. While they can’t deliver as blunt an assessment as Margoyles and hope to maintain any level of access, they could at least demonstrate that they have object permanence and can recall Hunt’s previous stints in ministerial office. 

Bouncy enthusiasm and an inability to realise that barking at postal workers is not the reason they walk away from your door is endearing in a dog. A refusal to tie the past to the present is less appealing in political journalists and does a disservice to us all. Whether they’re confronted with Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer, we need commentators who can go beyond tone and separate truth from deception in what passes for the substance. Perhaps it’s time to send Hunt on the local radio station circuit for a proper grilling.