Isabel Hardman

What Jeremy Hunt got right - and wrong - as Health Secretary

What Jeremy Hunt got right - and wrong - as Health Secretary
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You couldn’t get a stronger contrast between the new Foreign Secretary and his predecessor. Jeremy Hunt is a minister who has earned the absolute trust of two Prime Ministers in an extremely politically charged job. He was brought in by David Cameron to clear up the mess after Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act disaster, and Theresa May kept him in place, quickly learning that he was one of the few ministers she really could leave to their own devices. This was a huge accolade from May, given her propensity to micromanage.

Hunt earned that trust because he is a very loyal Cabinet minister. He does not style himself as an operator, unlike many of those he has served alongside. He does not pop up to feast on the misfortunes of his party leader, or indeed of his fellow Cabinet colleagues.

There is a saying about the Health Secretary’s job that you can either be a ‘glazier or a window breaker’. Hunt was brought in as a glazier, but he’s lobbed a fair few stones through windows in his time too. He started his job with a clear idea of what he wanted to do for the Health department, which was to focus on patient safety, and made this his fixation. It was a fitting focus, given one of Hunt’s earliest tasks was to respond to the inquiry into the Mid-Staffs scandal. His fixation was symbolised by a whiteboard in the minister’s office which listed the most recent ‘never events’ (surgical instruments being left in bodies, amputation of the wrong leg, administration of the wrong chemo into the spine, and so on) in hospitals around the country. It has continued throughout his tenure, moving more recently onto prescription errors.

It was a smart move to focus on one thing, but the subject itself was also smart because it put Hunt firmly on the side of patients, rather than of the producers of health care. He formed strong relationships with the families of those who had been catastrophically failed by the NHS, such as James Titcombe, who lost his son due to nursing errors at Furness General Hospital, and Mid-Staffs whistleblower Julie Bailey. He was so horrified by the stories that these campaigners and others told him that he developed a real zeal for reform, looking to the nuclear and aviation industries for inspiration on how to make each accident impossible to repeat.

But putting yourself on the side of consumers rather than producers does put you at risk of upsetting the latter group. Hunt is best known by voters as the man who upset junior doctors, and their strikes against their new pay deals significantly damaged his reputation. He did not handle this as well as he could have done: there were serious strategy errors, including offending the pride of these public servants. He claimed early on that the new contract would bring a ‘sense of vocation and professionalism’ back into the job, which doctors took as a direct insult about their commitment to healthcare, rather than a critique of the wording of the contract. No-one likes to be told that they don’t care about their job, but Hunt also misunderstood the psyche of most medics: not only do they really, really care about their jobs, but they’re also used to being told that they are good people - and have generally been told that they’re the best of the best since early secondary school, so the sensation of a Health Secretary suggesting something else was always going to be particularly stinging.

However, even when other Cabinet ministers were feeling intensely uncomfortable about the worst of the junior doctor dispute, David Cameron largely left Hunt to it, accepting that this was a necessary battle.

Hunt had decided to model himself on Michael Gove’s work as Education Secretary, and you can see the parallels between the way the two men stood up to the unions working in their sector. But you can also see how both men have had to learn that sometimes vested interests are best tackled subtly, rather than with constant confrontation. This lesson certainly won’t hurt Hunt in his new role.

Another attribute that Hunt brings to the job is his ability to get along with colleagues across the party. He is one of the few Cabinet ministers seen regularly in Portcullis House and the tearoom - many just sweep through with an entourage on their way to departmental questions, rather than chatting to colleagues. This is important in any job, and of course for anyone who, like Hunt, fancies becoming Tory leader one day. But it’s also handy because Hunt was a Remainer and is replacing a pro-Leave Foreign Secretary. He has built up a good network of friends on the Conservative backbenches to make this change go a little more smoothly.