Congratulations to Jeremy Hunt who today has become the longest serving Health Secretary. He has served 2,100 days – beating the previous record set by Norman Fowler who was in post during the 1980s for five years and 273 days. Of course Lord Fowler might gently point out that his burden was rather greater. In those days it was the Department of Health and Social Security; it was split in two in 1988.
Hunt has had his share of controversies as Health Secretary – as he did in his previous post of Culture Secretary when his Special Advisor resigned amidst claims that relations with News Corporation had been too cosy during the BskyB bid. Yet Hunt’s tenacity has proved formidable. In January this year there was a cabinet reshuffle. One of the big changes was to be that Hunt would become Business Secretary. But he persuaded the Prime Minister to let him stay at health – and he was given an enhanced role with responsibility for social care as well. In 2016 it was actually reported that he had been sacked. The previous year the briefing was that he would be replaced as Health Secretary by Liz Truss.
Hunt then tweeted: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated… Thrilled to be back in the best job in Government.” On the subject of Twitter, few Tory politicians have used it as effectively as Hunt. Most Ministers are inclined to be rather aloof in their approach – just issuing the occasional grand pronouncement. Hunt is more combative, taking on his critics robustly – especially when they have made factual errors.
Andrew Lansley, Hunt’s predecessor as Health Secretary, brought in important reforms, introduced as the Health and Social Care Act 2012. When Hunt was asked in Parliament last month if he thought they had worked as intended he replied quoting Chou En-Lai’s comment about the French Revolution’s impact: “it is too early to tell”.
A key component of the Lansley’s reforms was “de-politicisation” of the NHS. Power would be devolved. Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, is the boss. Yet whatever the process might be Hunt’s mentality is not to shrug and let them get on with it. Given Nigel Lawson’s famous observation that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have now to a religion” Hunt has been rather brave. He has not been so sacrilegious as to challenge the basis for the NHS – indeed he is pushing increasingly hard for it to be given more money. But Hunt has been more willing to attack the failings of the NHS than any of his predecessors. When a scandal takes place Hunt will say so – rather than try to excuse it or cover it up.
If Lansley wanted the power to go to the professionals, Hunt concern is to empower the patients. His approach was to apply accountability and transparency. When he was a new MP he was interviewed for 18 Doughty Street he said that he spent a couple of years in Japan and learnt the important lesson “never be afraid to copy”. The comment was made in relation to Lib Dem campaigning techniques in his constituency of South West Surrey. But we can see that his health reforms have, quite openly, been inspired by the ones implemented some years for education. Ofsted-style inspections were brought in followed by new leadership teams being imposed on those rated as inadequate. Performance tables would be published.
Last November Hunt wrote for this site about the Colchester NHS Foundation Trust having been turned around as a vindication of this approach.
In some ways Hunt’s success in surviving so long is all the more extraordinary given the turbulence he has endured. The British Medical Association passed a vote of no confidence in him. There was anger among junior doctors leading to strike action – while the aim of a truly seven-day NHS was noble they felt cheated over the imposition of new contracts.
Just after he was appointed Hunt decided to go ahead with a family holiday, which had already been booked. The BBC says:
“While on holiday, he read the report into the Stafford Hospital scandal, which Sir Robert Francis had just finished. Those close to him said the findings had horrified him. It was not just the poor care and suffering that had happened, but that it had been allowed to go on so long without the alarm being raised.
“He came back convinced he needed to champion patient safety. In the following years, he went on to overhaul the inspection regime, introduce a new duty of candour on staff and fresh rules about whistle-blowers.
“Someone working with him at the time told me this was “classic Jeremy”. They said: “He likes to pick a central theme and focus on it relentlessly. It is how he believes you get things done in government.”
While this milestone is impressive the smart money is on Hunt staying in office for years to come. Perhaps after Brexit is complete it will be announced that Theresa May is standing down. A new Prime Minister is then chosen and the press are briefed that as part of a big reshuffle there will be a new Health Secretary. Hunt goes into Downing Street and tells the new PM he isn’t having any such nonsense and will be staying in post. Hunt then emerges triumphant.
Presumably at some stage – perhaps in another 2,100 days time – there will be a new Health Secretary. I suspect that after he is gone we will miss him.