On the day of Theresa May’s first dramatic reshuffle in July, Jeremy Hunt walked the length of Downing Street without his NHS pin badge, expecting to be moved or sacked. Some time later, he emerged with the badge reinstated to his lapel. The rumours that he had gone were untrue. The medical profession – in particular the junior doctors in a long-running dispute with Hunt – were dismayed. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he tweeted gleefully later.
With junior doctors to embark on the sixth strike this year, can it really be said that the Prime Minister made the right decision in keeping him in post? The woman who has made it her intention to govern with steel may have not wanted to look like she was capitulating to the British Medical Association by moving him. She also likely wanted him to clear up his own mess, in the same way she wants the Three Brexiteers to take charge of our exit from the EU. These are rational motives.
But now, with a full five-day walkout set for 12 September and the prospect of 100,000 operations cancelled, it is time for the Prime Minister to acknowledge that Hunt has become too toxic to remain as Health Secretary.
Let me be clear: I have little sympathy for junior doctors in this dispute. Strikes earlier this year led to a new deal that was backed by the BMA, only to be rejected by doctors themselves. The government and the union worked hard to reach this deal, which saw doctors winning more money for working weekends and unsociable hours than the original contract had set out. As a past and future patient I want to see a seven-day NHS – a three-word phrase that sends junior doctors into meltdown on Twitter.
But something just as toxic as “seven-day NHS” is the Health Secretary himself. As long as Hunt’s effigy keeps burning, this protest will never end. The determination of junior doctors to take strike action in the face of a reasonable, union-agreed contract shows this has become more than a dispute about hours – it is a personalised war with the Health Secretary. Both sides seem to luxuriate in their opposition to each other: Hunt is the number one hate figure for junior doctors, while he has now compared himself to the founder of the NHS Nye Bevan, in words calculated to inflame the situation.
He acknowledged on Thursday morning that “health secretaries are rarely popular”, an innoculating comment to immunise himself against further hatred. But it is time for the Prime Minister to reassess her reshuffle decision. David Cameron did not want to cave in to an increasingly hostile teaching profession, but he saw the bigger picture when he moved Michael Gove as Education Secretary in 2014. It was not an admission of failure, just a desire to get on with good government (let’s put aside the fact that Cameron’s decision to move Gove to Chief Whip led to a slow-burn grudge that meant the pair were on opposing sides of the referendum).
The Department of Health makes mincemeat of its Secretaries of State. Few Cabinet ministers have emerged unscathed. In the last 30 years, only Ken Clarke, John Reid and Alan Johnson can be said to have prospered and gone on to better things (in all three cases, the hellfire that can be the Home Office). Reid famously told Tony Blair: “Oh f**k, not health” when asked to take on the job in 2003.
But this is the way it should be. A cancer patient waiting for treatment doesn’t care about a minister’s future career. An elderly woman whose hip replacement operation will be cancelled because of these strikes won’t shed a tear if Hunt is sacked later this year. They want an end to a dispute which has gone beyond carefully negotiated deals on pay and hours. It is time for the Health Secretary to recognise he is part of the problem and fall on his NHS pin.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies