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Jeremy Hunt: Tory saviour or “Theresa May in trousers”?

As he vies to be the next prime minister, the former health secretary is dividing opinion in both his party and the NHS.

By Anoosh Chakelian

There was once a time when Jeremy Hunt was known for three things. Jim Naughtie introducing him as “Jeremy C**t” on the Today programme; “losing his bell end” (the inevitable headline when the clapper on a handbell he was ringing flew off); and being the first health secretary to prompt doctors to strike without emergency cover.

While broadcasters still give Hunt Freudian introductions today, it’s that third legacy that really sticks. (Though he is still gaffe-prone, infamously referring to his Chinese wife as “Japanese” during a 2018 Beijing visit.)

In a dramatic confrontation with junior doctors that led to walkouts in 2016, the longest-ever serving health secretary (from 2012-18) imposed a new contract putting weekend staffing on the same terms as weekdays.

“Some people will never forgive him” for the way he treated junior doctors, according to an ex-NHS official who spent decades at the top of the service. One former cabinet colleague described his name as still being “mud” in the health service today.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt “wouldn’t rule out” running for the top job again]

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Yet Hunt, the 55-year-old Conservative MP for South West Surrey, is basing his political comeback on saving the very health service many feel he so profoundly damaged. He’s just written a book, Zero, which looks at how to stop avoidable deaths in the NHS. Patient safety was his key preoccupation as secretary of state – he would insist on reading one letter each morning from people who had lost loved ones because of mistakes.

According to one insider it is a worthy cause to many in the NHS, among whom it is “received wisdom” that too many lives are lost. Yet an area that sceptical Tory MPs consider unambitiously “safe” – no one disagrees, after all, with stopping people dying.

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Hunt, who was elected in 2005, is open about his failings as health secretary. He spoke to me last month about how austerity caused nothing but “a lot of pain for the NHS” until 2018 – the year he left the post – and how he regrets social care cuts going “too far” and becoming a “silent killer”, linking them to the dangerous ambulance delays we see today.

Having gone head-to-head with Boris Johnson during the last Tory leadership contest in 2019, he then retreated to the back benches, where he has chaired the Health and Social Care Select Committee since January 2020. Making a new name for himself during Covid-19 as a Conservative critic of government policy, he voiced “surprise and concern” that Boris Johnson didn’t lock down sooner in March 2020, and warned against “external visits to care homes” at the time. He has since been critical of the government’s attitude towards social care, lamenting to me that he’s waiting for the “penny to drop” for the current Health Secretary, Sajid Javid.

Yet many in the NHS and his own party are not convinced by his health policy epiphanies. According to one Tory adviser, he risks sounding like “the real Captain Hindsight” (a nickname Johnson gives Keir Starmer) – preaching about where the government went wrong on the health service despite having run it himself for six years.

After all, he held office during the slowest period of investment in the NHS since its foundation in 1948, and NHS England hasn’t met its cancer care, hospital appointment and A&E waiting time targets since 2015. He oversaw a cap on pay increases for NHS staff, and failed to recruit enough health workers – there is still a huge shortage of doctors and nurses plaguing the NHS he left behind.

Some Tory colleagues point out how the UK only prepared for a flu pandemic, rather than the event of a different virus, under his watch – something it was “his job” to question when in office, according to one well-placed source.

Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, unhelpfully voiced this out loud recently. “Your pandemic preparation during six years as health secretary was found wanting and inadequate,” she tweeted. Predictably, this has become a Labour attack line (as one Tory MP quips, “you may conclude that Nadine Dorries is a sleeper agent for Jeremy Hunt!”).

However, support among Tory MPs for Hunt as a potential leadership contender is “substantial, and rising”, I’m told by one colleague reluctant to put a number on it. He is the bookies’ favourite to replace Johnson, which adds to media fervour.

Hunt is not sullied by the current regime. He has substantial government experience (having served as foreign secretary and culture secretary, weathering a Leveson Inquiry scandal over News Corp’s BSkyB bid), and pedigree in the world of business, having founded the education company, Hotcourses.

As a Surrey MP, he also sticks up for the “Blue Wall”. After the recent Australian election resulted in defeat for the right, Hunt told me of “the dangers of alienating your more suburban conservative voters, who have those more socially liberal views”, and warned his party not to neglect its southern commuter belt “heartlands”.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt: the last Cameroon]

“If the leadership changes, there is a sizeable cohort of colleagues who want three things above all to help win the next election: someone untainted by Boris, someone with significant experience of government, and someone who is clearly moral,” said Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former cabinet minister who wants a change in party leadership.

“That’s why so many are seriously pressing Jeremy Hunt to stand. Plus, he’s right wing on economics, an entrepreneur who knows how to secure growth, and he eats liberals for breakfast! And a lot of colleagues are now very worried about resurgent Liberal Democrats.”

Others, however, feel Hunt has been on manoeuvres for a while, and overplayed his hand. Having organised behind the scenes, he appeared to reveal his ambitions before the confidence vote results were even in: announcing he’d be “voting for change”. This has not only upset Johnson diehards, but even some in the moderate middle of the party, I’m told by an MP of that description. Briefings that he may be appointed chancellor didn’t help, wherever they came from (Hunt told me he “wouldn’t rule out” serving in Johnson’s cabinet in the event of a reshuffle).

“His stock has fallen. The problem is he is over-exposed as a wannabe candidate,” said a former cabinet colleague, reflecting that Hunt has made himself vulnerable to attacks from No 10. “It’s that old adage: ‘He who wields the knife never wears the crown.’”

Then there are his politics. His Remainer credentials hindered his reputation among the pro-Brexit Tory membership last time around, and it may be that the time for fiscally dry, socially liberal Cameroons has passed. Yet he is clearly ambitious. His office is lined with photos of him meeting VIPs (from the Pope to Posh Spice), and he even has the Spectator’s unpublished cover announcing his surprise victory in the 2019 leadership election framed (“Hunt wins”). In a Russian doll line-up of past health secretaries on his bookshelf, he still stands at the end as the biggest matryoshka.

Even among his detractors, it’s clear Hunt has successfully journeyed from a Cameron-era verbal slip to a “serious player” in British politics (in the words of the former senior NHS figure). It remains to be seen whether he is the anti-Johnson his party needs or simply, as some colleagues unkindly nickname him, “Theresa May in trousers”.