Theresa May’s claim that a “Brexit dividend” will pay for an extra £384 million a week in funding for the NHS has been roundly and rightly trashed today – and among the sceptics is her own health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Hunt – who has long been pushing for a new funding settlement for the health service – told BBC Breakfast this morning that any marginal boost leaving the EU will give the public purse “won’t be anything like enough” to cover the increased spending.
Unlike his boss, the health secretary did not shy away from suggesting that tax increases would do more of the heavy lifting, despite last year’s Conservative manifesto pledging to lower taxes.
That he can say so freely reflects his political strength. In January, he was destined for demotion or the sack. Now decisions on the future of the health service are being taken squarely on his terms: Hunt first signalled he wanted to see new taxes fund an increase in NHS spending in March. Now the prime minister is dancing to his tune.
Where May’s unconvincing politicking on the source of the new cash has provoked derision, Hunt’s candour will boost his stock among Tory MPs. As health secretary for nearly 6 years – the longest anyone has ever served in the post – he makes for an unlikely insurgent leadership contender. Now, however, he is frequently spoken of by his colleagues in the same breath as Sajid Javid, the home secretary, when discussion turns to who should succeed May.
His willingness to acknolwedge frankly the political trade-offs necessary to make good on the promise of more funding for the health service speaks to two influential strains of thought among Conservative MPs.
The first, and most simple, is that “almost all Tories agree that the NHS is the top domestic issue”, according to one. The second, which follows from that basic sentiment, is that new MPs occupying themselves with the fashionable cause of rebooting the party’s domestic agenda are exploring new ways to fund the health service, as they are with the rest of the state (Neil O’Brien, the co-founder of new Tory think-tank Onward, suggested that the government should effectively increase income tax to do so this morning).
In that context, Hunt’s colleagues agree that positioning himself as a champion of the NHS and willingness to entertain a new funding model is savvy politics, of a one with his decision to resile from his previous backing of Remain in the EU referendum and this morning’s well-timed suggestion that medicinal cannabis oil should be legalised. These are the moves of a man determined to show a broad cross-section of his party that he is on the right side of their history. Almost imperceptibly, he is making serious headway in the race to succeed May.