Some politicians seem to get all the luck. Even though the NHS has lurched from crisis to crisis ever since he was appointed health secretary three years ago, Jeremy Hunt has always seemed to get a relatively easy ride.
Long after the feelgood factor of not being Andrew Lansley (his predecessor) ought to have worn off, Hunt has continued to feel extremely good about himself. Throughout his tenure there hasn’t been a single bad headline that he hasn’t smiled his way through. It’s almost as if he knows he is blessed – the government’s “special one”.
Giving evidence before Tuesday’s health select committee, Hunt gave the impression of it only being a matter of time before he learned to walk on water. He breezed in, his trademark grin revealing gleaming white teeth, as if he were hosting a departmental drinks party. Which he almost could have been.
The two-hour session that had once looked as if it might get a little sticky as the committee unpicked the details of his NHS reforms, was going to be a walk in the park. Not because Sarah Wollaston or her other committee members were anything other than forensic in their questioning, but because no one in the rest of the country was paying the slightest attention.
At the very moment Hunt was to be put through his paces, the now rather more famous other Jeremy was addressing the Trades Union Congress. Every TV camera in Britain was in Brighton for the event.
Corbynmania has reached such heights that the government could accidentally invade Syria and still the semiotics of whether the new Labour leader’s beard was sufficiently respectful for the Battle of Britain commemorations would dominate the headlines. Whether the lesser Jeremy currently had a grip on the NHS was neither here nor there.
Which turned out to be just as well. Hunt began in buoyant form, suggesting that despite an ageing population, a lack of money and rising expectations, the NHS had never been in better health. To underline his point, he started using extravagant Tony Blair-style hand gestures. It wasn’t a good look even when people were inclined to believe in them and it wasn’t long before the committee started to unpick some of his wilder assertions. Was it really true that the hospitals that were working flat out seven days a week had by far the highest morale? “Definitely.”
How did he think the NHS would cope when it was placed under greater financial pressure? “What you have to remember is that the £22bn we have earmarked in efficiency savings are not cuts,” he said. “So actually spending will go up by £10bn. And we don’t have to make all the efficiency savings immediately because they only have to be made by 2019/20.”
And if the government couldn’t make those £22bn efficiency savings by then? Jeremy looked hurt. “That’s a very difficult question,” he admitted. And not one he thought worth devoting much time to, as he was unlikely to still be health secretary by then. Blessed are the procrastinators, for they shall inherit the frontbench.
The health committee is probably the most polite group of MPs in Westminster but its firepower is formidable and Jeremy minor was left spluttering when asked how he proposed to increase GP numbers when he was actually reducing the money spent on them. He sipped from a glass of water. “I’m in safe hands here,” he reassured himself, remembering that at least three members of the committee were qualified doctors. “Unless you’re trying to poison me,” he added. The committee shrugged as one and chose to go on killing him with kindness.
This article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th September 2015 20.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010