Contrary to Andy Burnham’s teasing, the elusive “Hunt Jeremy” wasn’t hard to find on the Tory conference fringe this week.

Admittedly, after six weeks of virtual invisibility in his new post as health secretary, he’d blown cover as recklessly as his junior minister Anna Soubry did over assisted dying – and in the opposite ethical direction.

What Mr Hunt said at the “health hotel” in Birmingham was modest in tone and definitely intended to reassure the NHS’s patients and staff about his loyalty and respect. I’ll come to that.

Given that he’d expressed similar sentiments about how proud people are of Britain’s healthcare model and how cross he gets with Mitt Romney’s ill-informed “caricature” of it in his fateful Times interview it’s all the more puzzling that he stepped into the old elephant trap over abortion.

By making such headlines “he smashed day one of the conference news grid”, including the PM’s soothing NHS remarks

I suppose it’s a matter of sheer inexperience, mingled with naivety. When Hunt and Ken Clarke appeared at the Leveson press inquiry on the same day I calculated that the old bruiser had been an MP six times as long as Young Lochinvar – 42 years to seven – and could still probably strangle him, albeit at 72 to Hunt’s 45.

As in wider life but more so, in politics there are ethics of principle and ethics of consequence. In telling The Times that he personally favours an abortion limit of 12 weeks, Mr Hunt was being divisive on the first and alarmingly foolish on the second.

By making such headlines “he smashed day one of the conference news grid”, including the PM’s soothing NHS remarks, explains one chum. Number 10 will have fumed.

Of course, people are entitled to say abortion is wrong in all circumstances (should the Pope show as much concern for the safety of born children from predatory priests, do you wonder?) or that medical science now makes foetuses viable much earlier.

I was pleased that the 1967 Abortion Act ended the gin-and-knitting-needles scandal of backstreet terminations and Harley Street rackets, though I think society has since become too casual.

To hear a prominent pro-choice doctor call abortion “just another medical procedure” is just untrue. In my experience, women never forget that lost baby (“she’d be 35 now”).

But politics is a a tough body-contact business. Hunt came to the DH as a Murdoch-tainted Cameron groupie, as ignorant of the NHS as it is of him.

Divisive question

Of course, he should have ducked such a divisive question (“changing the law is not on the coalition’s agenda”) unless he was deliberately courting easy tabloid headlines (cynically too since few abortions occur after 12 weeks) which I strongly doubt. Either way he let a culture wars genie out of the bottle.

So a careless start. But let’s be positive, he’s the only health secretary we have. In Brum he said that after wide consultation his priorities will not be more structural reform (Hurrah!), but health outcomes, four in particular.

Specifically that means:

  • the quality of patient care (“no magic bullet”), as distinct from treatment;
  • preparing the NHS and social care for an ageing population and better dementia diagnosis;
  • better “person-centred” treatment of long-term conditions;
  • and making sure that “the best healthcare system in the world” (yes, he really did say that) has better mortality rates, especially in the major killer diseases.

That’s all about integration, which he says he “wants to be as important as competition; both have a very important role to play.”

Okay. But when Mr Hunt mentioned the NHS head operation he had last year he failed to impress one old hand: “I always think it’s a bad sign when they start talking about their operations.” Now, now, give the man a second chance.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

Accountability probe could lead to regulation for managers