If there was a politician in 2012 that had a year of two halves, then it was Jeremy Hunt.
By the time of the Olympics he had become a comedy figure and it looked like the Jubilee year would be one to forget. Hiding behind trees at Murdoch parties, calling lobbyists “Daddy” and being unable to ring a bell without almost killing a member of the public was greeted with hilarity by almost every political commentator. This coupled with the fact that he was so evidently in hoc with the press corporations seemed to spell the end of a ministerial career for this Murdoch lacky.
It was a surprise to most then, when Cameron appointed him to one of the most challenging portfolios in government; health secretary. However, in this role he has been remarkably effective for the Tories.
When he took the health portfolio at the start of September the NHS privatisation was a weekly fixture on the front of broadsheet papers. Three months later the great sell off of the NHS is out of the news, despite this year starting with 105 private companies being given “any qualified provider” status. The “no cuts to the NHS” argument, which was hanging by an increasing fraying string, has been decommissioned (for now). And, Labours opinions poll lead on health, which had almost doubled since May 2010, is starting to shrink, a little.
Hunt’s success has been that he has enthusiastically championed patients. He has sought to present himself as identifying with their anxieties and protecting them against the incompetent managers who let 1,200 die at Staffordshire Hospital. He has floated the easily understandable idea of Ofsted inspections for hospitals and has committed himself to placing more control in patients’ hands. In short he has changed the conversation.
This nimbleness has been effective in the short term. If the Labour health team play it right it will be fatal for him in the long term.
The NHS reforms mean that the Heath Secretary now has very little control over what happens in the England’s hospitals. The close link between Westminster and the District General Hospital that Bevan designed has been broken. The power now lies with the CCGs and the NHS Commissioning Board. The Health Secretary can no longer pick up the phone to the Strategic Health Authority and tell them to sort out a politically embarrassing mess. No, the NHS is now a maze of contractual obligations, fragmented care and huge gaps through which patients will fall: the brave new world.
In the new NHS, a Health Secretary championing patients’ rights is comparable to him championing the Black Mandibled Toucan: he has no direct control; he can only draw attention to their plight.
This year the £4 billion real term cut to the NHS will start to bite, new companies will enter the market at pace and the NHS Commissioning Board and the CCGs will take control of budgets. Patients are about the get hammered and tragically many of them will die unnecessarily. A Secretary of State for Health (who the public still hold responsible for their health service) championing patients is just a man living on borrowed time.
The Labour health team needs to adjust to this, and quickly. The conversation has changed from “privatisation” to “patients in a fragmented service”. This is a political gift, which should be accepted. The privatisation rhetoric never found the traction with the public that it found within the Labour membership. This conversation will. Labour can be a megaphone for the patient and bring forward plans to remedy what are now clearly apparent problems with the new NHS.