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Thursday 19th July 2012 | 20:01
Words: Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory
“It’s a bit like Space Invaders. A googlie comes down and you have to zap it before it hits the bottom – and it’s always something different every day.”
As the man in charge of the biggest sporting event on Earth, it’s perhaps no wonder that Jeremy Hunt relies on intergalactic metaphors to describe the scale and tension of his task of defending the London Olympics from chaos.
It’s also no surprise that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport reaches back to his youth to capture the daily drama of preparing for the 2012 Games. Very much a child of the space-invading 1980s (and direct Oxford contemporary of David Cameron), he’s a firm believer in the Thatcherite credo of free enterprise and radical Toryism. From his defence of G4S to his sympathy with Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid, Hunt has stuck to his beliefs despite his most perilous few months in politics.
As he chats in his office near Trafalgar Square, the Olympic bunting is literally out at the DCMS and the Culture Secretary seems to relish the challenge of recent weeks. Even the sun makes a rare appearance.
Now attending and often chairing the daily Olympics coordination meetings, he reveals that even the sombre surroundings of the ultra secure COBRA room in the Cabinet Office are occasionally given a lighter touch.
At a presentation on the Olympic opening ceremony to Cabinet recently, the room’s digital clocks were switched from their usual ‘London’, ‘Kabul’ and ‘Islamabad’ readings. Instead, they read: ‘London’, ‘Kabul’ and ‘Stratford’. Fellow ministers got the joke, but Hunt is deadly serious about delivering a Games to be proud of.
“We are now having these kind of meetings every day, several times a day. The Government machine is working faster than I’ve ever seen it and it’s actually really impressive. I think quite often as a minister the thing that strikes you is the amount of infighting, the tensions, the battles between ministers, the battles between different departments, and actually we have got 19 departments who are pulling together.
“It’s a very different mood to the normal kind of business of Government… The machine has responded very well.” He half-jokes: “I wish it was as quick to implement policy in other areas of Government, frankly.”
Aptly enough, given the armed forces’ rescue of the G4S contract, there is a regimented mood in the COBRA meetings. “It feels like there is the kind of precision, the attention to detail, the determination to sort things out quickly, to get to the bottom of issues as fast as possible. I think there is the precision of a military operation there,” he says. G4S will be subjected to a detailed post-mortem after the Games. “I’m sure there will be lessons drawn about giving big contracts to big companies, but now is not the moment to do that.”
But will G4S lose other Government contracts? “I think G4S’s attitude to this problem will be very decisive in that. Because I think the fact that they admitted quickly as soon as their senior management knew there was a problem, they admitted the scale of it, the fact that they’ve cooperated with us since then is very important. But I don’t want to speculate about what will happen.”
And of those space invaders heading towards Planet Stratford, he says: “I think transport and security have always been the two areas where we knew we’d have to pay the closest attention and so it’s turned out..actually I think the system has coped pretty well to date. There will be other things. This is a huge logistical exercise.
“Yesterday, for example, 25 training camps opened for athletes all on the same day. We’ve never in our history opened 25 sporting venues all on one day for top athletes from around the world. It’s not in the papers because it all happened smoothly. 5,000 athletes are going to be installed in the [Olympic] Village by the end of this week, 70% of the rooms have already been allocated, a 5,000 seat, 24-hour restaurant is in operation.
"There’s a massive amount happening and it’s happening in a very British way. The whole thing has been very British actually. It’s been smooth, it’s been professional and..,” he pauses for effect, “…the media have given us a hard time. That’s kind of what you expect in Britain, but in terms of what we are delivering, I think we can be very proud.”
Does he get depressed by the media coverage? “If you could win a gold medal for grumbling even when things are going extremely well, then Britain would definitely win that,” he smiles. “But actually I sense a slightly different mood in the media. I think that even the most hard bitten journalists are actually very proud of the Olympics. We monitor, we don’t have a black book, but we have a list of journalists we know are a little bit sceptical about the Olympics and it’s quite interesting. Even they are beginning to soften a bit and I think people realise it’s going to be a great national occasion.”
But what about the Great British weather? Has he been doing an anti-rain dance? “There are two things that are pretty important to the Olympics which ministers have absolutely zero control over. One of them is the weather and the other is the number of gold medals we get. So in both cases we have to resort to prayer rather than policy.
"But actually, let’s look at this positively. If it rains that would be a great home advantage to our athletes because they are used to it. And also if there’s one country in the world that knows how to have a good time even when it’s raining, it’s Britain. “So I’m sure we are going to have some rain and I’m sure we’ll have some sunshine. I think we can expect good old variable British weather. I actually did read out the weather forecast to the Cabinet yesterday. It was one of these wonderfully vague forecasts, it said ‘the weather is likely to be better in the next few weeks than it has been in the last few weeks but a long protracted sunny spell is unlikely’.”
Of course, Hunt does not just have sport on his plate, but also culture and media. His office walls are hung with modern art, as well as framed photos of him with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Pope. Even Tom Watson’s Dial M for Murdoch is on his bookshelves.
His current upbeat manner is a far cry from the embattled figure who faced calls for his resignation over claims that he was too close to News Corp during its attempted takeover of BSkyB. He says that the Labour Party’s call for him to resign “was foolish and it was irresponsible… Harriet Harman called for my resignation before she had even read the evidence, before I’d given my evidence, before I’d testified, and when I did it became clear that I had handled the bid totally properly. We’ll obviously wait to see what Lord Justice Leveson says, but I thought it [calling for his resignation] was a big mistake and a big misjudgment to jump the gun on that.”
And even though Lib Dem ministers pointedly abstained in Labour’s opposition day vote on whether Hunt should be referred to the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, he feels no bitterness towards his government colleagues. “I never interpreted it as a personal thing. I think the Lib Dems wanted to make a political point that as a party that hadn’t been in power for many years they had not got into the business of having to court media barons in the way that Labour and the Conservatives have and they wanted to find a way to make that point. That was really what was behind what they did.”
Some Tory MPs used the Lib Dem abstention as justification for retaliation over Lords reform. But as Hunt is a firm believer in an elected Lords, that particular line seems ironic. “I’m surprised they’re doing that because I’m a big supporter of Lords reform”, he states. “I actually would go further than our proposals. I would have a wholly-elected second chamber modelled on the US Senate because I want a stronger parliament.”
Hunt compares the search for progress on Lords reform with his Tory colleagues to efforts to help the Lib Dems “live with” the NHS reforms, a comparison which suggests that the Conservative Party is very much a coalition in its own right. “We do have a wing in our party that’s always had a problem with Lords reform. A lot of them are my friends and I understand their views, and for a lot of them it comes from a sort of deeper-rooted Conservative philosophy that is based around a respect for institutions and suspicion of radical reform – but I’ve always been on the radical wing of the Conservatives. I’ve always thought that actually Conservatives are in power to be the party that takes tough and difficult decisions, and this is definitely one of them.”
Lords reform has now been shelved until after the Games, a decision which may well be preceded by David Cameron’s long-delayed reshuffle. The Prime Minister is even said to be considering breaking up the Department for Culture, Media and Sport altogether.
Not surprisingly the present Secretary of State makes a case for the defence, arguing that the DCMS has “proved our worth in the last few years” with its “coordinating role right at the centre” of the Olympics project. He is keen to stress that the DCMS punches above its weight. “[In] the last couple of years we’ve taken on responsibility for the technology industry, the broadband agenda, which is really important for economic growth, and I think that’s what you get with a small operation – you get focus. Just like the small companies, you know, they give things real focus and it really matters to them. Well, with DCMS, you know, projects we have, we do really well, and they really, really matter to us. I think we’ve proved our mettle.”
Next in Hunt’s in-tray is the Communications Bill and the review of media regulation which will follow Leveson’s findings. Asked if legislation could be in next year’s Queen’s Speech, he says the Prime Minister will “want to act quickly” once Leveson concludes.“I think the mood of the public is that, you know, they want a proper, quick, full response from the government and that’s what we’ll do. I think also the media would like stability. So I imagine that we will have a short intense period of debate after we get the Leveson recommendations in October, [and] between October and Christmas will be a very important period for actually resolving the future of media regulation.”
Up until this year, Hunt’s career appeared to be painlessly upward in its trajectory. Having survived calls for his resignation, he seems bloodied but unbowed. “It’s been tough, but I’ve come out of it stronger”, he replies. “It can’t get much more rough than having two-thirds of the country saying you should resign. There was an amazing tweet by [Times’ columnist] David Aaronovitch which said: “Pollster: should Hunt resign? Public: yes. Pollster: who’s Hunt. Public: Er…” It was very intense but you come out stronger and you see another side of politics which is the rough and tumble.”
During that time, support held firm from within his own party. Proof perhaps that nice guys win in the end – or at least don’t get kicked when they are down. “Throughout the entire process, you know, I took the view that I have to be myself and I am very proud of the fact that in the seven years I have been in Parliament I haven’t changed as a person. When I eventually leave parliament, and I hope to be here for many years thanks to the good people of South West Surrey, I hope I still haven’t changed. What people want in politics is authenticity, decency… you face a lot of challenges but I think you get through them.”
His intention of a long political career is intriguing – at the start of the year Hunt’s name was mentioned as a future leadership candidate. After a short time as the favourite to leave the Cabinet, where does he see himself now? At the beginning of the year, people were touting him as a possible Tory leader. Is that still possible, having come through this?”
“This is politics, isn’t it? From hero to zero…" - and back again? - "but definitely back again”, he replies, smiling. “You don’t know where politics is going to end up. I think it’s best not to have any grand plans, but I think you just have to come out of these things wiser and stronger.” The answer could hardly underline more clearly Jeremy Hunt’s return to political health – and self-confidence. Let the Games (both Olympic and video) begin.
Hunt on... the event he is most excited about: “The first event where I see Team GB get a Gold medal, because I think that is something over which I have absolutely no control. It could be the cycling a week on Saturday and that would be a fantastic moment for Mark Cavendish.”
Hunt on...David Beckham: “I would have loved David Beckham to have been picked. He is a great national hero and he has given so much back to the UK. But in the end this is a sporting event and you have to respect sporting decisions and Stuart Pearce is in the driving seat on this one. I hope we can find a really good way to recognise what David has done.”
Hunt on...avoiding the Today Programme: “That was actually before I came into politics. I used to be a big Classic FM listener. I’m afraid since I’ve become a sad politico I always listen to the Today Programme, even during the Leveson process when I was perhaps starring in it more than I would have liked….”
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