If the wheels do soon fall off Boris Johnson’s bandwagon, after forty-one percent of Tory MPs voted against him, more attention will no doubt shift to one of Sajid Javid’s predecessors as Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt—the subject of James Naughtie’s infamous slip of the tongue. As a rival challenger to Johnson for the leadership in 2019, and having reinvented himself as an outspoken chair of the Commons Health Committee, led parliamentary pressure for an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to ensure better workforce planning for the NHS (ultimately rejected), and even written a book claiming he would do things differently now, Hunt is again seen by some as a potential alternative if Johnson is forced to step down.
But this reputation laundering shouldn’t be allowed to happen, and a quick survey tells us why.
Having been elected as an MP in 2005, Hunt became Shadow Culture Secretary two years later, and was given the actual job after David Cameron’s coalition government took office. He replaced Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary in 2012, soon after Lansley’s controversial marketising Health and Social Care Act received Royal Assent.
With estimated personal wealth of £14 million—ten times Johnson’s estimated wealth—Hunt was one of twenty-three millionaires out of twenty-nine in Cameron’s cabinet. He would, if he took over, become the richest-ever PM.
And while he did not go to Eton, or join Cameron and Johnson in the brutish Bullingdon Club, he was privately educated and attended Oxford University at the same time as them, serving as president of the university’s Conservative Association. One of his political heroes is Margaret Thatcher.
While in opposition, Hunt was one of over twenty Tories (along with, for example, Michael Gove, Kwasi Kwarteng, Jesse Norman, and John Penrose) who signed up in 2005 as joint authors of a 104-page right-wing pamphlet called Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party, which argued for the NHS to be denationalised as part of a switch to an insurance-based healthcare system. He has subsequently denied that he wrote or supported the sections on the NHS.
On becoming Health Secretary, however, Hunt was still fending off claims by the Observer that he had personally intervened to speed up the award of a £650 million community services contract covering his constituency to Virgin Care. By the following year, Hunt was battling in vain to get the Court of Appeal to overturn a judicial review ruling that his efforts to impose heavy cutbacks on Lewisham Hospital Trust were unlawful. Hunt ignored powerful evidence of the damage that the plans would cause, and afterwards sought new legislation to give him wider powers to intervene.
Then, in 2013, using cynical and distorted statistics, Hunt outlined plans to combat so-called ‘health tourism’ in line with Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. These plans included introducing a new £200 ‘immigration health surcharge’ for anyone seeking visas to enter the UK, and allowed NHS Trusts to charge up to 150 percent of the cost of treatment in secondary care. These fees have since been increased and enforcement tightened, with serious consequences for many migrant workers and their families. The fight to repeal them is still being waged by campaign group Patients Not Passports.
In 2015, Hunt rashly—and implausibly—promised 5,000 extra GPs by 2020, which, of course, have not been delivered. Then he went on to provoke a bitter and lengthy dispute with junior doctors over pay and conditions, which only made recruitment of trainees more difficult.
The following year, Hunt supported moves by Chancellor George Osborne to scrap the NHS bursary for training nurses and health professionals, which also limited recruitment, especially of mature students. In 2017, Hunt promised an extra 21,000 mental health staff would be in post by 2021—another hopelessly unachievable target, missing which has done nothing to restore morale in a still shamefully neglected service.
In January 2018, as the NHS neared its seventieth birthday, Hunt’s frank admission that the Service was facing a winter ‘crisis’ was countered by Theresa May’s apology for the failures and delays, only for Hunt to promise a woefully inadequate ‘Birthday’ increase in spending.
When Boris Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary in July 2018, Hunt stepped across to take his place, with no perceptible change in policies between the two post-holders. Hunt backed the Saudi Arabian regime in their war in Yemen, and was backed by Saudi cash in his failed leadership bid the year before the pandemic hit, and highlighted, with tragic consequences, just how neglected the NHS had been under his tenure in the Health brief.
Jeremy Hunt’s one obvious merit is that he isn’t Boris Johnson, and any disruption of that current gang’s activities could be viewed as a plus. His record nonetheless suggests that in office, despite his more liberal persona, he has been as reactionary and opportunistic as much of the Johnson cabinet—and we should take any suggestion that in taking on the premiership things would be different with a whole bucketful of salt.