‘I’m off the leash!’ In his most candid interview yet, Jeremy Hunt tells JAN MOIR about finally being able to say what he thinks, the extraordinary way he proposed to his wife – and the lasting impact of his sister’s death 50 years ago
Jeremy Hunt believes that politicians who seek high office should willingly subject themselves to question, debate and the most stringent forms of public scrutiny.
What he didn’t imagine, not for one second, was that amid the forensic glare of the contest between himself and Boris Johnson, he would find himself having to talk in public about a family tragedy that happened 50 years ago.
It has emerged that when he was aged just two, he had shared a bath with his baby sister Sarah in which she drowned.
‘It had no emotional impact on me because I honestly can’t remember it at all, which was an enormous blessing,’ he tells me.
For his parents, of course, it was a very different story. ‘We knew never to talk about it in front of my father, but what I do know is that he was sad about it until the day he died. For both my parents it was an indescribable agony.’
His nanny, Dianne Brady, had left the infants playing in six inches of water for several minutes while she went into the kitchen to prepare the baby’s supper. By the time she returned, the little girl, just ten months old, was dead.
Jeremy Hunt with his wife Lucia during his visit to Lymington in Hampshire
‘Sarah’s sleeping,’ little Jeremy told her – a heart-breaking detail revealed in a London newspaper’s account of the inquest into the tragedy in 1969.
The story re-emerged after Mr Hunt was questioned about this family sadness in an interview with ITV political editor Robert Peston on Wednesday night.
‘I have no idea how they found out,’ he says, revealing that over the intervening five decades it was a subject barely discussed even within the Hunt family themselves.
‘We never really talked about it, only ever in glancing conversations,’ he told me. ‘Among our family, Sarah is a special memory and my parents never hid her death from us. On the other hand we knew not to bring it up, particularly not with my dad, who felt it very sorely.’
The family’s silent pain was so deep that until further revelations surfaced this week, Jeremy Hunt did not know that the incident had taken place in the family home in Notting Hill, west London. He had always believed it occurred in an apartment in Dolphin Square in Pimlico, central London.
He also had no idea that his father, who died in 2013, had spoken so movingly in the nanny’s defence during the subsequent inquest.
‘He taught me to reach for the stars, but also that decency matters. He was an admiral, but he always cared about most junior person on the ship,’ Hunt said of his father
Hunt has always been close to his parents, the distinguished naval officer Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt and former naval nurse Meriel Givan.
‘Mum is someone who always bounces back, however tough things get. She is one of the most optimistic positive people I’ve ever met. But Dad was the biggest influence on my life because he was incredibly kind but had real steel underneath,’ he says.
‘He taught me to reach for the stars, but also that decency matters. He was an admiral, but he always cared about most junior person on the ship.’
After hearing the evidence at the inquest, the coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death. It was then that Mr Hunt’s father, a commander at the time, took the stand to make his courageous personal statement. ‘We have had Miss Brady with us for about six months,’ he said, ‘and we think she’s absolutely marvellous and both children absolutely adored her.’
Hunt has always been close to his parents, the distinguished naval officer Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt and former naval nurse Meriel Givan. He is pictured in Lymington, Hampshire
How commendable that this bereaved young father, who never got over the death of his baby daughter, could find it in his heart to offer compassion and support to the distraught young woman in the witness box. His son says that this would have been entirely in character.
‘Once, when he was the captain of a ship, there was a signalman who made a mistake.
‘My father was instructed to send a signal ashore naming this person who was in trouble. But he sent back his own name instead.
‘He had a tremendous sense of understanding of people who get into difficult situations.’
The Hunts went on to have two more children: Charles, in 1970, followed a year later by Susanna. They clearly made heroic efforts not to let Sarah’s death impact too heavily on family life.
‘If anything, it brought us closer,’ says Hunt. ‘We were the liveliest, loudest family that you could ever imagine. But I know for Mum and Dad there was a sadness that never went away. We just knew it was incredibly painful thing for both of them. Ours is one of those tragedies that lots of families have to live with.’
For his own part, the former health secretary suggested that his sister’s bereavement perhaps influenced him when, as a politician, he met grieving parents who had lost children. ‘Maybe that triggered something in me,’ he said.
Today, he and his wife Lucia Guo have three children of their own, Jack (nine), Anna (seven) and Eleanor (four). ‘They are very excited about what is happening, even though they don’t really understand,’ he says.
They live in the splendour of Carlton House, the Foreign Secretary’s official residence in London, where, he says, his relationship with his wife is one of equals. ‘She gives as good as she gets,’ he notes and insists he is hands-on and domesticated.
Despite his father’s glowing naval service there was no pressure on any of the Hunt siblings to join the Navy. He’s pictured here in a boat with his wife Lucia
‘I do my share of the ironing. I help to clean the house but I’d say that I have probably done more tidying up than cleaning this year. Lucia is the sparkler in our life. I don’t take the bins out and to be honest I haven’t cleaned a bath in a long time.’
Despite his father’s glowing naval service there was no pressure on any of the Hunt siblings to join the Navy, although young Jeremy did originally want to be a helicopter pilot.
After Charterhouse, where he was head boy, he studied PPE at Oxford where he was an exact contemporary of David Cameron.
Boris Johnson was three years ahead, studying Classics and running a campaign to be president of the Oxford Union. Mr Hunt did not meet either until they were all at Westminster. ‘David was much too cool and trendy to get involved in the Oxford University Conservative Association, which I was president of.’
Were you a weed? He nods in affirmation.
‘I was the Conservative goody-goody. I wasn’t in the cool gang,’ he says.
Perhaps that dork factor still lingers, with Mr Hunt seen as dependable but dull in comparison to the firecracker appeal of maverick Johnson.
The question is, can a man of such little charisma as Mr Hunt succeed at a time of increasing populism and in an era when the grassroots Conservative Party seem to be in the grip of a feverish Boris-mania?
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘There is a lot of worry out there and people aren’t looking for a showman, they are looking for someone who can solve the problem.’
Certainly, Mr Hunt is far more amusing and animated in person than photographs or TV appearances suggest – where he often comes across like a knitting pattern model.
Travelling across the country in the freewheeling leadership hustings has given him a new lease of life – and a boost to his appeal.
For amid teak hulls and even teaker tans, the Jeremy Hunt standing in front of me at the Lymington Yacht Haven in Hampshire is not the Jeremy Hunt we think we know.
That guy? That was boring Jeremy. That was managerial Hunt, the softly-softly minister always in command of his briefs, the safe pair of hands who emerged unscathed from the Ministry of Health and is so far gaffe-free – touch teak! – at the Foreign Office.
Today, he is on a voyage to shake off his boring reputation.
With the sea breeze ruffling the coconut wisps of his hair, he spreads his arms wide, plants his big feet in a Mary Poppins boomerang, puts his hands on the hips of his dad-jeans and says: ‘This is Jeremy Hunt unleashed!’ What does that mean? ‘It means for the first time in nine years, I can say exactly what I think. When you are the outsider in a race, there is no pressure. I am off the leash for the first time in nearly a decade. I don’t have to be so guarded.’
Free from the constraints of high office, collective responsibility and towing the party line, Exciting Jeremy can say what he likes on any topic, make all sorts of mad promises about tax cuts and Brexit deals and even promise to take on Boris at mud-wrestling, should the need arise.
A mad cavalcade of photocalls has seen him scoffing fish and chips in Aberdeen, cooking a balti in Birmingham and driving a taxi in Essex, thumbs aloft at every opportunity.
Before today is out, he will take the helm of a boat, pose with some sausages and go completely mad when ordering a drink. ‘A plain water, please.’
Lucia, spending her first day with him on the hustings, is glad we are seeing this different side to him. ‘He is always so much fun, friends and family all love him,’ she says, loyally.
‘Jeremy is not boring. He is not a shouter, that is why people don’t know his personality but actually he is a really fun person.’ As they pose happily together, the subliminal message is clear. Happily married and with the kind of stable life in which his wife buys all his clothes, he wears a Fitbit to monitor his eight hours of sleep each night and his biggest private shame is that he ‘doesn’t spend enough time doing homework with the kids’, ready-steady Jeremy is the anti-Boris.
Mr Johnson’s failure to address questions about a police call-out to his girlfriend’s flat following an alleged row has raised questions about his flawed character.
Conservative party leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt speaking to members in Dartmouth
Revelations about crude remarks he made over the French during his time at the Foreign Office has made some doubt his judgment. To his credit, Mr Hunt refuses to kick his rival when he is down.
‘We are all flawed,’ he says. ‘This should be a contest of competence, not virtue. I have had about a thousand requests to make comments about Boris’s personal life, but I just don’t think this should be about an argument between two people.
‘We have all had those rows. I think what all politicians feel when these stories come out is not gloat, but there but for the grace of God go I. Maybe it will be something about me next time.’
What is the naughtiest thing he has ever done?
‘Well it is a lot naughtier than running through a wheat field [a reference to what Theresa May said was her naughtiest deed], but maybe not quite so naughty as some of the things Boris has done.’
He admits to points on his driving licence and has already talked about drinking a smoothie laced with cannabis on a backpacking trip in Asia during his youth, but he barely even had a single cosmic thought before he passed out.
‘I was very, very ill. And I haven’t touched it since. I felt absolutely awful. Every nerve in my body was tingling and I was out of action for 24 hours. It wasn’t fun at all.’
He met Lucia, who comes from the Shaanxi province in China, when he ran his educational company Hotcourses – he later sold it for £15million – and she worked at Warwick University.
On their first date, they went for a Chinese meal and then to see Othello at the Donmar theatre in London. When they met, he was 41 and she was 30. By the end of the year, on Christmas Eve, he had proposed.
‘It was love at first sight for me. The truth is I was into my forties and on the shelf. I had never met anyone before that I wanted to marry. Can you imagine what online dating is like if you are a single MP?’
Good grief. No.
‘Lucia was the first person I wanted to be my wife. So I said, “Will you marry me?” When she said “Yes”, I said, “Now that means you’ve got to be loyal.” She looked at me and shouted, “Now that means you’ve got to be loyal!”’
In a wildly romantic gesture, he hid a ring in the hollow of a tree for her to find during their Christmas Eve walk. I love that, but particularly because he himself looks like something you might find in the hollow of a tree; button-eyed, watchful and quiet, no stranger to sorrow, perhaps spinning a hazelnut in two little paws, before nibbling it for lunch.
One can see his father’s influence in his determination to fight a clean battle and to succeed on the strength of his own merits, not the failings of his opponents.
He is an admirable admiral’s son, with an innate sense of decency and a determination to drag the argument back to what really matters – but is he being realistic about his chances?
‘I am the outsider,’ he says. ‘People aren’t expecting it but they’re not just going to get a surprise when I win, they’re going to get a surprise when I’m a fantastic prime minister who takes us out of the European Union and fires up the British economy as only an entrepreneur knows how.’
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