Michael White tries to look on the bright side of Boris, Brexit and the new prime minister’s line-up
In the eye of a political storm without precedent in my lifetime, let’s start at one of the few fixed and unchanging points. As Labour battles itself to bits and the prime minister – yes, it’s still Theresa May – appoints Brexiteers to clean up the EU mess they have created, one man stands where he did before the upheaval. Jeremy Hunt remains health secretary, still in dispute with those divided junior doctors.
As you know, not even his survival was certain for a while. It was reported (and denied) that the secretary of state was being sacked from cabinet along with messrs Osborne, Gove, Whittingdale and Nicky Morgan. His job had been “offered to Stephen Crabb”, briefly a May leadership rival. Crabb turned it down, citing family priorities (when will they learn not to send flirty texts to young women?), and Hunt survived, just 10 days younger than the fallen Cameron, but still afloat.
True or false? The sacking story has a plausible ring, a new PM’s reshuffle plans derailed by a personal glitch. Health officials were certainly braced for change after four years of post-Lansley recovery. The truth will probably emerge in due course. Meanwhile the Great Survivor had the wit and grace to acknowledge the speculation by tweeting: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Thrilled to be back in the best job in government.”
Boris then bottled his own leadership bid when Michael (“fed up with experts”) Gove knifed him, the one useful thing Gove has done lately
Short of the appointment of a dynamic Mayite woman (Amber Rudd got the Home Office instead) I think the NHS could do worse. Mr Hunt is a known quantity, he’s not the ideological enemy he is sometimes painted, a low key managerialist doing his fairly pragmatic best in very hard times, which Brexit may make a percentage or two harder for those cancer waiting time delays. Don’t mourn that “extra £100m a week for the NHS” which Brexit promised. It was just funny money.
One merit of the Lib-Con coalition was that it made constant reshuffleitis harder and continuity stronger. Unfettered Tory rule since 2015 has changed that, but Mrs May seems solidly sensible. I was as shocked as Angela Eagle looked on TV – and ministers looked all over Europe – when hearing that she’s made Boris Johnson foreign secretary.
Diplomatic china shop
I thought “most trusted” Boris behaved disgracefully during our disreputable referendum campaign, probably tipping the result to Brexit, the UK’s most serious error in domestic politics since 1945. He then bottled his own leadership bid when Michael (“fed up with experts”) Gove knifed him, the one useful thing Gove has done lately.
As for the Brexit unwinding, it will take years and absorb much energy, but we must make the best of it. There will be an upside (no more working time directive interference?), though the downside is more clearly visible. As with Boris in the diplomatic china shop (“You broke the EU, you fix it,” May seems to be saying) it’s not directly our problem here. Perhaps Brexit exhaustion will finally force meddling politicians to leave the NHS alone for a while.
Overall, I thought May the obviously best available candidate for No 10 once Cameron had done a runner. She’s not a crusader or a zealot like Margaret Thatcher, but solid and self-confident as her cabinet changes showed. Straight off to Scotland too, I liked that detail. Clinton, Merkel and May (two of them vicars daughters), we could live with that.
One helpful development for the NHS may be Philip Hammond’s promotion, long the obvious successor to George Osborne at the Treasury. A lot has changed since Hunt’s Surrey neighbour was William Hague’s shadow heath spokesman (1997-2001), but he knows the brief.
In his pre-politics career Mr Hammond’s business interests included medical technology and care homes. Another cool technocrat, disinclined to raise his voice or liken Candidate Clinton to “ a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” Cool may be May’s core style.
Where does that leave Labour? Nowhere much, I fear. May’s opening bid for post-Etonian social justice sounded designed to woo the vaguely progressive centre. Jeremy Corbyn’s feebly ambiguous performance in the Brexit campaign triggered the shadow cabinet revolt, with novice health spokesman, Heidi Alexander, among those resigning. It all seems a long time ago.
Older and fatter
Diane Abbott is back as No 1 health spokesman (she once did public health), but she symbolises the left’s preoccupation with the party and the activist membership rather than with those pesky voters who may not always agree with Jeremy’s wobbly line.
Diane is 63, older than anyone else mentioned here (May is 59) and been an MP since 1987, longer than any of them too (May was first elected in 1997). The world has changed utterly in those 29 years, not least because the Chinese communist party has given up communism and made it harder for the rest of the world to make a living.
The NHS has also changed a lot, as has its customer base, older and fatter. But Diane and Jeremy have not changed. They call it principled consistency. But I don’t. As Keynes said: “If the facts change I change my mind. What do you do?”
Michael White writes about politics for the Guardian