There has been a vague sense of ‘maybe’ surrounding UK politics since last year’s general election. Will we see another general election before 2022, following last year’s surprising setback for the Conservatives? ‘Perhaps, possibly’, says the political commentariat, understandably scarred by poor returns from the predictions game over the past two years. But the consensus is such an event requires a real challenger: an alternative to Theresa May able to re-energise the Party and appeal to the public mood in a way the Prime Minister appeared increasingly incapable of doing last year.
Jeremy Hunt might be that challenger. The Health Secretary is set to cut the ribbon for 70th birthday of the NHS after celebrating an unlikely personal milestone. At the time of writing, Hunt is a mere 22 days, 14 hours, 15 minutes and 33 seconds away from surpassing Norman Fowler to become the longest-serving health secretary of all time (GP Online has you covered with a countdown clock if you’d like to keep track). But one gets the suspicion the South West Surrey MP is after a grander prize, given the moves he’s been making over the past year.
The Health Secretary has gradually shifted gears in his public comments after last year’s electoral set back for the Conservatives. Seemingly a true believer in austerity during the early months of Theresa May’s premiership, Hunt routinely supported the ‘live within your means’ edict for the NHS prior to June 2017. Less than a week after the Conservatives failed to regain their majority in the House of Commons, Hunt seemingly began to accept the public had grown tired of underinvestment in public services, saying that he had “a great deal of sympathy” towards nurses complaining of low pay in his speech to NHS Confederation. He also started to shift the onus onto the Chancellor, by claiming he had lobbied for additional funding and left the ball in Phillip Hammond’s court.
The perception of a Hunt versus Hammond battle over NHS funding continued in the lead up to the autumn Budget last year, with the Health Secretary citing the “very robust case” he had been making to the Chancellor to ensure the NHS got “what it needs.” Hunt could claim a small victory from this battle, after Hammond announced an unexpected £2.8 billion top up over three years. After purposefully consulting with his Conservative colleagues over the Government’s new long-term plan for the NHS, he will be able to cite a more comprehensive success if – as the Guardian reported recently – he truly has the ear of the Prime Minister with a proposal for a £5.2 billion per year funding increase.
Such an outcome would set up the Health Secretary as a saviour. While he has endured a rocky ride over the course of his five-year tenure, a funding increase nearing the annual four percent level experts say the service needs would not only change the negative NHS narrative weighing down the Conservatives, it might also spur on a few verses of ‘hail to the chief’ from erstwhile critics of Hunt’s work at respected healthcare institutions such as the King’s Fund, NHS Providers, and the Royal College of Nurses. After lobbying the Prime Minister to hand him a beefed-up Department of Health and Social Care and reaching an agreement on NHS pay that seemed so unlikely 12 months ago, he would be able to present himself as a man with a record of achievement, something other potential successors to Theresa May lack.
Hunt would of course have to clear a series of hurdles prior to any anointment. He remains desperately unpopular within the medical profession, which will not easily allow him to re-write history after the junior doctor strikes and nursing pay disputes. He also fails the ‘image’ test on many levels, as a wealthy white male from the home counties who has recently come under fire for failing to disclose just how wealthy he is. Finally, he has some enemies within the Cabinet, as he is no Brexiteer (though he might be coming around) and was labelled “toxic” by unnamed senior colleagues amidst rumours he was due to take the vacant post of ousted First Secretary of State, Phillip Green. But if Hunt can reverse the narrative on his time in charge of the NHS, he is unlikely to fear the challenge of responding to these claims. After all, it might not quite meet the bold promise of a famous big red battle bus, but £100 million extra per week for the NHS is surely much better than nothing.