A week ago there was a discernible cigarette paper between them: Boris Johnson was the bad character with charisma, the sociopath who would do anything, say anything, lie, cheat and swerve, his roguishness and proroguing priced in with the populism. Jeremy Hunt was dull as hell but more sensible, the man who (probably) wouldn’t drive the country off the cliff in a Boris bus.
The three-quarters of voters who reject a no-deal Brexit could only hope against hope that, just possibly, Hunt might defy the odds and persuade the Brexit-crazed old white men of the Tory tribe to think again. No longer. The only useful role for the inevitable loser in the Conservative leadership contest was to pull the next prime minister back into the realms of reality. But in the death throes of this contest, Hunt emerges as a swiveller too, a turncoat peddler of the same hyper-dishonesty, just as ready as his opponent to wreck the economy and people’s lives.
The apparent certainty of Johnson’s victory is driving erstwhile sensibles to abandon everything they said before: Matt Hancock on the Radio 4 Today programme let go of all he stood for as candidate to clutch the Boris bandwagon.
Character was supposed to be Hunt’s USP, but in the crucible of this campaign his has irredeemably collapsed. Why throw away dignity and reputation when he could have saved both in an attempt to rescue the country? Instead he backs every Johnson trope. Forget “I’m an entrepreneur”, he copies “fuck business”, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he is willing to trash family businesses “with a heavy heart” as “a necessary sacrifice”. For we voteless bystanders, it’s ours not to reason why, as both men “do or die” us into the valley of economic doom.
Both spray money as if from one of Johnson’s water cannons. Hunt’s proposed £6bn to compensate farmers and fishermen for steep no-deal tariffs would improve their lot not one iota, just covering needless costs when the Brexiters promised frictionless trade. How much is £6bn? Some £4bn would repay all the cuts to schools since 2010. Replacing the 20,000 lost police officers could cost under £1bn. Or £6bn could increase social care by more than a third. Instead the money is just to stop farming and fishing collapsing, a minuscule sector compared with manufacturing and services. Compensating them would be fathomless.
The two men’s glorious spending spree is an unexpected electoral gift for Labour. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reckons both men would spend roughly what Labour pledged at the last election: forget any future “magic money tree” jibes after this reckless spaffing-up-the-wall by these Tories.
As the chancellor looks on aghast, the country may celebrate this bombshell end to austerity – except this is haphazard spending on electoral eye-catchers regardless of the urgent need for public-service repair. Hunt and Johnson’s tax cuts for the wealthy come with no reversal of poverty-inducing benefit cuts. There would be no £26bn “fiscal firepower” with a disorderly no-deal Brexit, as the chancellor tweeted yesterday, confirmed by the IFS: it would be eaten up by plunging Treasury revenues. So forget Hunt’s pledge to “turbo-charge the economy”.
Gordon Brown might be permitted a wry smile at the irony, given the Tories’ mendacious attacks on him for his spending to protect against the worst effects of the 2008 financial crash. Here’s Hunt, the born-again Keynesian, promising the same for a no-deal Brexit: “When you face a financial crisis it is responsible to spend money.” But here’s the big difference: this crisis is artificially created by him and all Brexiters. Meanwhile, manufacturing just suffered its sharpest fall in six years, leaving Make UK, the trade body, protesting that Hunt and Johnson’s no-deal pledges show they have “zero understanding” of the consequences.
Though Johnson looks a shoo-in, tremors in recent polls show a narrowing of the gap. Toby Helm of the Observer and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg detect some Tory members switching to Hunt – but with no numbers. Unease may grip some, but both men have locked themselves into the same no-deal dead end, with no exit, no escape. Nigel Farage is announcing his 650 parliamentary candidates this week, to block any no-deal U-turn.
If anyone hoped Hunt’s character might save the day, this swerving to woo members is true to form. In a now deleted tweet, David Cameron’s former director of strategy, Andrew Cooper, called him “an unprincipled windsock who will believe whatever he thinks you want him to believe”. As culture secretary, arbiter on a Murdoch bid to buy BSkyB, he hid behind a tree to avoid photographers catching him going to dinner with the Murdochs. To duck the blame, he fired his adviser for cosying up to the media oligarchs.
In the NHS, he fired chief executives brutally to frighten others, knowing them to be blameless. When a list of indebted trusts showed too many women executives for the chop, he changed the names arbitrarily. An observer of cabinet says he was a “lightweight who expressed no views”, and only tried to please. Hunt started his campaign with a call for a 12-week abortion cutoff, to woo Tories. Outrageously, he compared the EU to the USSR. As recently as 27 May he wrote in the Telegraph that the Conservatives “will be committing political suicide if they attempt to push through a no-deal Brexit” – but see how the windsock blows now.
Yet, ultimately, the only character that matters is that of the sane remnants of the Tory party. Can they muster a true Churchillian nerve to defy their party and vote no confidence in their leader if a no deal threatens?
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist