Jeremy Hunt offers his enemies no point of attack. The Health Secretary wears an armour of smiling friendliness, speaks a language of impenetrable blandness and has devised an NHS policy which focuses people’s minds on how to improve the service, not on how to defend it against some imaginary plan to flog it off.
This makes Hunt a difficult man to write about. The British journalist is ill-equipped to cope with success. We feral beasts prefer to sink our teeth into a disaster, a crisis, or at the very least a gaffe. Perhaps this winter, the NHS will provide us with one. But just at the moment, to get a really heart-rending health story one has to go to west Africa.
So far as I can see (and my apologies to anyone whose work I may have overlooked), no one has managed to write an amusing profile of Hunt as Health Secretary, the post he has occupied since September 2012. He has achieved the extraordinary feat of making his portfolio seem quite dull.
How different, how very different, things were under his predecessor, Andrew Lansley. The last Health Secretary might look, on the surface, like a tedious enough person, what is known in politics as “a safe pair of hands”, but he managed, with his Health and Social Care Bill, to plunge the entire Government into crisis. Elderly peers returned to the front line with the sole aim of saving the NHS from destruction at the hands of Lansley. Shirley Williams was in the thick of the action, and so was Dr David Owen. The whole thing was a nightmare of a kind David Cameron and his circle never again wish to live through.
Conservative MPs are grateful to Hunt for restoring calm. “He’s everything that Andrew Lansley wasn’t,” as one of them put it to me. “You couldn’t have a conversation with Lansley. When you meet Hunt, you feel you’re being listened to. I think he’s very likeable, very bright and I think he’s empathetic. He brings everyone in, he doesn’t lecture. I think he’s doing a good job.”
A second Tory MP – like the first, a person more than capable of criticising a minister – said of Hunt: “Calm, friendly and knows his brief. Has kept fuss to a minimum despite very difficult times. Appears to be working well with NHS board and CEO.”
And yet there was a time when Hunt himself, in his previous job as Culture Minister, was at the eye of the storm. It emerged during Rupert Murdoch’s bid for full control of BSkyB that Hunt, who had ministerial responsibility for adjudicating on the bid, and his special adviser, Adam Smith, were on what looked like excessively chummy terms with Murdoch’s people. Smith resigned, and when asked at the Leveson Inquiry about this episode, said Hunt had first reassured him that this resignation would not be necessary, only to inform him the next day: “Everyone here thinks you need to go.”
That sounded like a horribly evasive formula, and it did not look good for Smith to be going while Hunt stayed in office. Hunt himself said his own contacts with Murdoch’s lobbyist were “clearly not appropriate”: another evasive formula. And on a separate occasion, Hunt apologised “if my comments have caused offence”: again a rather mealy-mouthed way of putting it.
But as far as the Murdoch bid was concerned, Leveson went out of his way in his report to say that Hunt had behaved correctly. After surviving this ordeal, Hunt commented, “They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, which oddly enough are the words Ed Miliband recently used to describe a rough patch.
At this distance in time, it is possible perhaps to see the chumminess with representatives of the Murdoch empire as the product of a form of good manners: the compulsive desire of a certain kind of Englishman always to remain on good terms with people, even those who are behaving in a tiresome way. It is possible that when it comes to managing the NHS this is a useful characteristic. David Cameron certainly thought Hunt was the right man for that job, and promoted him at a time when a less self-possessed Prime Minister might have dropped him.
It should be remembered that at this point, Hunt was extremely inexperienced. He was elected an MP in 2005 for the wealthy commuter constituency of South-West Surrey, which includes the towns of Haslemere, Farnham and Godalming. He has campaigned hard for a larger car park at Haslemere station. A friend of mine who flew over Haslemere in a hot air balloon says: “Every house had a tennis court and a swimming pool. It is a fantastically wealthy part of the country.” Only two years later, Cameron made him Shadow Culture Minister. The surprising thing about Hunt, and about a number of other leading members of this Government, is perhaps that so few things have gone wrong.
Hunt is in some ways a more conventional, even old-fashioned member of the ruling class than his rather classless manner may suggest. Born in 1966, he was brought up at Shere, in the beautiful stretch of country between Guildford and Dorking, was educated at Charterhouse, where he was head boy, and read PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a First, and was president of OUCA. His father was a naval officer, Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, “who in retirement”, Lord Lexden writes, “took up the magnificent but hopeless cause of reversing the decline of our merchant fleet as Director of the Chamber of Shipping. His splendid advocacy of the cause won it much support in the CPC [Conservative Political Centre] seminars which I organised for him.”
Father and son both bear the name “Streynsham” before “Hunt”. They are descended from a number of prominent people, including Sir Streynsham Master (1640-1724), who had a distinguished career in the East India Company. Hunt himself went east soon after leaving Oxford, and taught English in Japan, where he also learned Japanese. He joked later that it was the wrong language: for in 2009 he married Lucia Guo, from Xi’an in China.
Here we get one of the glimpses of a more exotic world which Hunt occasionally vouchsafes. As the Guardian related in October 2009:
Tourists visiting the ancient city of Lijiang in south-west China were greeted by an incongruous sight this summer. In the shadow of the Jade Dragon mountain, an old Carthusian could be seen marching through the streets alongside a traditional sedan chair carrying a Chinese woman. Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, was marrying his Chinese partner Lucia in a pre-revolutionary ceremony.
“We went back to what a wedding would have been like pre-1949 – that involved us going through the streets with a sedan chair carried by my family,” Hunt says, recalling how he had to undergo a series of tests before his family could carry away his bride.
These included singing, performing 25 press-ups and finding his bride’s shoes.
“I had to do three kowtows to the sun,” Hunt says.
After his work as a teacher in Japan, Hunt made an unsuccessful attempt to sell marmalade there, before with a friend setting up an educational publishing business, Hotcourses, which has prospered, making him a wealthy man. It was through this business that he met his wife. In an interview last year on the Andrew Marr Show, when pressed on why he supports gay marriage he replied: “In my own case, I mean I chose to get married in a church and not in a registry office because I happened to want to make my marriage vows in front of God. I think if gay people want to do that and if the church is willing to conduct that ceremony, we shouldn’t stand in their way.”
While writing this profile, it occurred to me that I had never heard Hunt give a speech, so I watched his speech at this year’s party conference, which lasts for just over 24 minutes. It is a skilfully apolitical performance: as he says at one point, “It’s not a Labour Health Service or a Conservative Health Service. It’s a National Health Service.” Hunt’s manner is good-natured but dull, even pious. His aim is not to entertain, but to make it impossible for any but the most ill-natured listener to say “No” to him.
His approach to the NHS is an astute mixture of central control and local initiative. There is a new inspection regime, so that failing hospitals can be put in to “special measures”, where teams are sent in from the centre to sort things out. But there is also a framework, set out the other day by Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, in his Five-Year Forward View, which says that “England is too diverse for a ‘one size fits all’ care model” but “nor is the answer simply to let ‘a thousand flowers bloom'”, so local institutions will be expected to “choose from amongst a small number of radical new care delivery options”.
Some of the language is horribly bureaucratic: one of the options is something called “The Multispeciality Community Provider”. But the general approach doesn’t seem unhopeful:
“As a nation we’ve just taken the unique step anywhere in the world of entrusting frontline clinicians with two thirds – £66 billion – of our health service funding. Many CCGs [Clinical Commissioning Groups] are now harnessing clinical insight and energy to drive change in their local health systems in a way that frankly has not been achievable before now.”
It is possible that Lansley’s idea of putting power in the hands of doctors will begin to bear fruit. Hunt brings to this a determination to publish, as a spur to improvement, very large amounts of information, so that we can see which doctors and hospitals achieve the best results. As Professor Norman Williams, until recently President of the Royal College of Surgeons, says: “Rather than denying the findings of the Francis Report [into the terrible things which went wrong at Stafford Hospital], he chose to embrace the recommendations and has systematically gone about implementation particularly in the fields of transparency, duty of candour and patient safety.”
People still tend to mistrust Tory intentions on the NHS. But when one considers how keen Labour is to promote, in the run-up to the general election, the idea that the NHS is in desperate trouble, it is quite impressive to see how little material Hunt has given them to work with. Part of the difficulty for Labour is that many of his ideas are simple common sense. Hunt wants, for example, to ensure that medical staff behave like airline pilots: mistakes have to be reported, not covered up. He thinks “the national attitude towards reconfiguration has changed”, as he put it earlier this year in an address to the Nuffield Trust (my other sample of his lucid but underwhelming oratory), so that we can achieve, among other things, “a fundamental, radical transformation of out-of-hospital care”.
The paradoxical effect of Hunt’s success is that he has dropped from view. He used to be spoken of as a possible future leader, but now tends to be overlooked, certainly by comparison with more prominent figures such as Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Theresa May. I would have thought he would make a good Foreign Secretary: though just as we knew next to nothing of his views about health until he was given responsibility for it, so we know virtually nothing of his views about foreign policy. This unforthcomingness, his tendency to divulge information about his opinions only on a need to know basis, perhaps makes it as yet rather hard to envisage him as leader.