Houdini Hunt pulls off great escape amid Tory rout

Jeremy Hunt has pulled off a dramatic Houdini act – the great escape of the election campaign.

When the exit poll forecast a Labour landslide and massive Tory losses, Liberal Democrats at his count were extremely cheerful and hopeful of pulling off their most spectacular victory of election night.

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But when the result was declared at 4.40am, Mr Hunt had scraped home with a majority of 891 votes after a number of recounts.

"You came here to see my demise!" the chancellor told me, grinning, as he left the count in the Edge Leisure Centre in Haslemere.

And one of his team confided to me: "We knew at 11.30pm that we were going to win."

There's confidence for you.

Mr Hunt's great escape is a stunning personal triumph and reward for the relentless hard work and campaigning he put in in his new Godalming and Ash constituency over the past six weeks.

He's proved that he's an example to colleagues that a formidable challenge from political opponents can be overcome even when the odds are massively against you.

But he and his team weren't so confident of victory during a campaign which Mr Hunt described as "gruelling" in his gracious victory speech in which he was also magnanimous towards Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves.

During the campaign, Mr Hunt's defeat had been widely predicted. He'd even warned his children: "Daddy might not be chancellor, he may not be an MP after the election."

And in an election in which when several members of Rishi Sunak's cabinet have lost their seat, Mr Hunt would have been by far the biggest casualty of the Tory rout.

A political career including four cabinet posts including two of the so-called "great offices of state" - foreign secretary and chancellor - would surely have been at an end.

He would also have been the first chancellor of the exchequer to lose his seat in a general election, an unenviable record.

A defeat by the Liberal Democrats would have been compared with that of Michael Portillo, then defence secretary, in the Labour landslide of 1997. He even admitted during the campaign that he could be the victim of "a Portillo moment".

His task was made even more difficult by the timing of the general election and the dash to the polls, which infuriated many Conservative MPs.

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After Mr Sunak's shock announcement of a 4 July poll, back on 22 May, it was claimed that Mr Hunt favoured waiting until the autumn before holding the general election.

The hope, according to the conventional wisdom among Tory MPs, was that interest rates would come down, voters would feel the benefit of his cuts in national insurance, and he could reduce NI even further.

Loyally, however - whatever his private thoughts - Mr Hunt publicly backed the 4 July election, telling The Mail on Sunday during the campaign: "The fact that we've had two significant tax cuts that haven't really changed the polls demonstrates to me that having a third one with the same again is unlikely to change the calculus.

"The Bank of England's view is that there's an 18-month delay between changing interest rates and it impacting on people's finances... so the idea that you have a drop in interest rates and suddenly everyone feels good... is to underestimate how people are making this decision."

In interviews during the election campaign, Mr Hunt predicted his seat would probably be won or lost by the Conservatives by 1,500 votes or fewer.

That prediction of a slender majority turned out to be spot on.

Now, with so many Tory cabinet ministers and senior backbenchers either losing their seat or standing down, Mr Hunt will be one of the few "grown-ups" and senior figures left on the Opposition benches in the Commons.

In his victory speech, he said the Tories had lost the trust of the British people. Now he'll be one of the key figures in rebuilding that trust in opposition.

That's a task at least as hard as holding his new seat against the formidable challenge of the Liberal Democrats, who are now on course to win around 70 or more seats in the Commons.

But he has already proved, with his remarkable result here, that he's not to be underestimated - and he's Westminster's great Houdini.