A week after the clean-out of all but one of Andrew Lansley’s ministerial team at Richmond House the dust is still settling.
As I type, Jeremy Hunt is quietly reading himself into his new brief, sensibly enough given its complexity and his ignorance. In expressing her characteristically robust views on assisted dying, his new junior minister, Anna Soubry, has been less prudent.
Everyone has been drilling into the past record on health matters of the new secretary of state and his largely untested team. We have read that Mr Hunt is an experienced manager with the business background Mr Lansley lacked (“management is about getting the strategy right” explains one veteran Tory) but also that he likes homeopathy, dislikes hybrid stem cell research and voted to cap legal abortions at 12 weeks.
Oh yes, as the Twin Towers toppled on 9/11 an ex-staffer says he personally told employees at Hotcourses, his educational publishing company, to turn the sound down because it was distracting sales staff. I mention it not to enrage NHS readers, but because it’s faintly comic. It does show a man watching the bottom line. So did Scrooge.
It’s a bit like minister of state “Dr Dan” Poulter’s disputed claim that “I often used to do 100 hours a week, clearly it’s unacceptable” - fun for the blogging community, but not very enlightening. Dr Dan is 34 and energetic, a social activist who works in accident and emergency (plays rugby too) in the holidays and - surprise - champions his local Ipswich hospital.
A better way of looking at the new boss might simply be to say he’s bright, ambitious and in David Cameron’s inner circle of Oxbridge public school types; also that he favours more private sector involvement in the NHS but has - surprise again - vocally opposed hospital rationalisation in the backyard of his south west Surrey constituency. He even applauded the local primary care trust for sacking McKinsey & Co for suggesting such dreadful thoughts. In other words, Jeremy Hunt’s known positions on health policy are what should best be described as incoherent - in sharp contrast to Mr Lansley’s well-crafted world view in which every bedpan had its place. This has prompted the Anyone But Lansley crowd to welcome Hunt’s appointment because they can now reopen all sorts of issues.
That seems as premature as the “Come Back Lansley, All Forgiven” response from others, including Labour. Hunt is a blank slate, eager to please Number 10. We can be sure NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson is on the case, determined to slow down primary care reform with Number 10’s approval. Lansley often felt undermined by Number 11 and the Lib Dems too. Now the underminers may prevail.
That said, some Labour and Lib Dem MPs find Hunt likeable; he’s also a strongly pro-coalition minister, and his treatment of the Lib Dems at culture was used as a model for all departments. That will please nice Norman Lamb, back in the department with Paul Burstow’s job now that Lansley (who vetoed him) has left. On radio, Lamb tactfully showed TV presenter-turned-lawyer Ms Soubry that handling delicate debates like assisted dying needs tact, not hand grenades.
Yet there are also smart Tory ministers and MPs who dismiss Hunt as a Murdoch-tainted lightweight who has risen without trace, his promotion symptomatic of a botched, crony reshuffle - one that fails to reflect what one calls “an intellectual journey” by Cameron and George Osborne, who is also pro-Hunt (argh!!).
Some well-placed sources also predict a nightmare baptism of fire for the untested new team with a clutch of horror stories looming - the Francis report, the mandate, Monitor, regional pay plus “one I can’t tell you about”. Seatbelts on.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian