HUNT: Joining up more dots in the Culture Secretary’s ‘success story’

Jeremy Hunt, the British Council, the SW Surrey nomination, and Virginia Bottomley

A judicious mixture of crony capitalism and pal-o-mine politics?

David Cameron said  a few months back that he saw “nothing wrong in giving one’s children a leg up”. Jeremy Hunt may still be one of the children in whom he is well pleased, but it’s getting harder by the day to justify his defence of the Culture Secretary. However, Mr *unt is a keen student of the leg up while pelting along the inside track and then cutting across-field events to the tape. Now it appears likely that he used Dave-style who-you-know-not-what-you-know tactics to first of all get rich….and then enter Parliament, the better to further his cultural philosophy.

A key mystery-player in this saga might be Virginia Hilda Brunette Maxwell Garnett, these days better known as Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone. Sometimes, marriage can be a terrible disappointment – especially when you have to swap Garnet for Bottomley. But the former Health Minister Virginia Bottomley has other compensations as she plies the now familiar trade of getting on letterheads and earning fat fees on account of having run a Government department into the ground.

Ms Bottomley’s day job these days is chairing the Odgers Berndtson Board & CEO Practice, a headhunter  specialising in  searches for Chairmen, CEOs and non-executive directors. A former Minister seeking out troughers who are looking for easy stipends as non-execs is a disturbingly apt metaphor for our business culture in 2012. But fair do’s here – Ginny works hard, having many jobs.

The former Health Secretary is a member of the Supervisory Board of Akzo Nobel NV, a non-exec director of BUPA , a member of the International Advisory Board of Chugai Pharmaceutical Company Ltd….and as of a month ago, a non-exec director of Smith & Nephew, where she replaced that other fine Tory stalwart, James Murdoch. It pays to screw up the NHS. Daily Telgraph health correspondent and former doctor James Le Fanu wrote at the time that:

‘…”tales of expense fiddling, malpractice, political patronage and managerial featherbedding”, is how the Economist has described the miasma of scandal that seems to be enveloping the newly reformed National Health Service [1994] but Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, seems unperturbed…A bribery culture has evolved in which doctors are seduced by financial inducements allowing them to hire staff or obtain “free computers”. Indeed the reforms have become notorious for an absence of financial responsibility – £70 million has been spent by Trust hospitals advertising their new status; the NHS car bill leaps from £53 to £70 million; and two managers from Worcester Royal Infirmary see nothing odd in travelling to the US together on Concorde on an £8,500 two-week round trip…’

As recently as February 2012 in fact, a Telegraph leader referred to her as “the useless Virginia Bottomley”. But then, her first job was as a social worker.

Useless she may be,  but also helpful to Messrs Cameron and Lansley in 2012 when they need private health supporters in the Lords: 40 members of the chamber have a vested interest in seeing hospitals privatised. The PM is indeed, in private, grateful to Baroness Bottomless. But even so, ‘a bribery culture’ is a nasty use of three words.

Now read these words about three jobs, and see if they remind you of anyone. Used to be the Culture Secretary. Used to sit as the MP for SW Surrey. Used to be a trustee on the Board of the British Council when Hotcourses was a supplier.

Yes, the connection between her and Jeremy Hunt is rather spookily consistent, n’est-ce pas?

A couple of weeks ago, The Slog was wondering how the young Jeremy managed to f**k up the first brochure he did for the British Council, and yet manage to stay on contract, have it swapped from Education Websites to Sheffield Data, have the BC say afterwards (via FoI) that there had been no change in the contract…and finally, have the BC collude in getting Education Websites buried. Surely the parfumée Ms Bottomleak cannot have been involved in any of this? We may not know, we cannot tell. But Young *unt came out of this mess definitely smelling of roses.

And might we speculate that, perhaps, the warm relationship forged at the Council led to Jeremy’s next success? As many of you already know from his fab Murdoch-cheering constituency website, Jeremy Hunt is the MP for Surrey South West, having ‘inherited’ it (if I may use that leg-up term) from picture of health Virginia. The Baroness lives in the constituency to this day, and does a great deal of work for the area. That she and Jeremy still work together is not in question: they cut the first turf (below left) to start the A3/Hindhead Olympics road improvement scheme only last year.

“They know each other well,” confirms local journalist Amy Taylor, “they are both Conservative politicians in the area, and Baroness Bottomley still lives in [local town] Milford”.

I’d imagine, however, that we can assume Mr Hunt took the decision to let his election agent stay for free at his taxpayer-subsidised home entirely without anyone else’s help. That little subterfuge led to Jeremy having to repay more than £9,500 in expense claims in 2009.

But let us draw a discreet veil over the sort of thing that cost the rather more able David Laws his job, and focus instead on Jeremy’s other stroke of luck: being a University contemporary of David Cameron. Because that friendship saw *unt rapidly catapulted into the stratosphere….or dumped fathoms out of his depth, depending on your point of view.

And as it happens, coming from a similar wing of the Party – and Dave having worked for mutual friend Michael Howard – its possible that the Baroness might also have taken whatever opportunity came up to confirm the Prime Minister in his view of Jeremy as A Very Good Thing to be considered as Culture Secretary. Certainly, very few people can claim to reflect the 2012 business culture to quite the degree that Jeremy Hunt does. He avoided £100,000 of tax last year alone, a legal offence with which Cameron said he “would not wish to be associated” – but then proceeded to defend Uriah Hunt to the hilt.

And the Tory elite wonders why Labour are 14 points ahead in the opinion polls.

In all the brief resumés one sees of Hunt the Culture, it’s common to depict him as the very epitome of start-from-zilch entrepreneurialism. But it’s bollocks. From an elevated private school start at Charterhouse, this son of a Knight (now Chairman of Ferrero Rocher) went to Oxford, and since that time has used every opportunity, every connection, and every State monopoly he could find to make money and create his own breed of manufactured success.

But it’s the same confection of success so common to the privileged never-had-a-proper-job plonkers who cram the halls of Westminster and Brussels. From Nick Clegg the eurocrat via Tony Blair the failed barrister to David Cameron the leg-up man who got his first job via his wife’s Mum, these people exist in a powerful network of mediocrity. They truly are The Establishment, and their incompetently corrupt arse-licking, jobs-for-the-boys-and-girls way of life has, since the early 1970s, turned a once-great, magnanimous and respected country into the crock we see sprawled out before us today.

Still, as it happens, there’s an ironic twist in this tale of coincidence today: Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has had to pull out of a British Council conference on “the value of cultural relations to the UK economy” which he was due to address next Tuesday, citing “other commitments”. And the title of the event? “Trust pays”.