Is Jeremy Hunt positioning himself to be next prime minister? | Katy Balls

By speaking frankly about NHS funding, the health secretary is rewriting the rulebook showing that anything is possible

At the weekend a Conservative MP took to the airwaves to break from party orthodoxy. Decrying the government’s funding model for the NHS as “crazy”, this Tory rebel with a cause made clear their support for a new health tax. Only, this wasn’t an unruly backbencher fed up of Theresa May’s weak and wobbly leadership, nor was it an ambitious minister sticking their oar into the health brief. Instead, it was Jeremy Hunt – the secretary of state for health.

The fact Hunt felt able to go public with his NHS demands reveals two things. First, the Conservatives have changed the way they look at the NHS and funding since the EU referendum. Second, Hunt’s position within government has never looked more secure. When it comes to NHS funding, the Conservatives used to see it as an issue they needed to at best try to neutralise ahead of elections. However, a combination of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn has changed that. The Vote Leave pledge of £350m a week for the NHS showed how potent it was to weaponise health funding.

Now it’s a high-stakes game – if the Conservatives fail to deliver on NHS funding, they will be associated with broken Brexit promises, regardless of the fact May never made the promise herself. What makes things more difficult for the Tories is that Corbyn’s Labour is gaining ground on the issue. A No 10 briefing before Christmas saw MPs presented with a series of route maps that revealed which party led on different values. The good news for the Conservatives is that they still lead on the economy. The bad news is that they lag on nearly everything else, and on the NHS Labour are streets ahead. Things are so bad that usually fiscally conservative MPs – such as Jacob Rees-Mogg – now agree with their anti-austerity colleagues that more money is needed.

The disagreement begins, however, when it comes to how it should be funded. Hunt’s call for a hypothecated tax is popular with MPs such as Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee, and holds some allure for No 10. However, the chancellor is sceptical and there is a wing of the Conservatives who are opposed to taking lessons from Labour. That lesson came from Gordon Brown in 2002 when he increased national insurance contributions to pay for extra NHS spending. Despite initial scepticism, it turned out to be a popular move – the NHS is so valued that it’s one thing that the public really do appear to be prepared to pay more tax for. It follows that a 1p rise in national insurance to pay for extra health spending would fit with the Tory rhetoric about a “balanced approach” – compared to a Corbynite borrowing binge.

Given that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says the tax burden is already on course to rise to its highest level in 40 years, there are those who think the money ought to be found from cuts elsewhere. But even if No 10 and No 11 don’t take heed of Hunt’s very public warning, it’s unlikely to do him much harm. In fact, although Hunt is sincere in his call, it’s not purely coincidental that he benefits from the publicity.

Over the past six months, Hunt has seen his popularity grow within the party – and cabinet – to the point that he is now seen as one of the favourites to be May’s successor. Unlike Rees-Mogg or Amber Rudd, Hunt is seen as a unity candidate who can appeal to both sides of the Brexit debate. A remainer-turned-Brexiteer, we are looking at the “Theresa May candidate” of the next Tory leadership race: a unifier whose biggest plus point is that they are not as divisive as their colleagues.

Hunt’s critics pour cold water on the idea by pointing to the fact that he failed to get enough nominations from MPs to stand in the leadership contest after the referendum. However, he could take a lesson from May’s ascendancy. She also tried and failed to get on the ballot in 2005 – in the contest that made David Cameron leader. She didn’t make the same mistake twice: the second time, she took advantage of infighting colleagues and won by pitching herself as the “sensible” option. It’s easy to see how Hunt could tread a similar path. Tory leadership contests nearly always turn into a battle to stop X. And Hunt’s colleagues are likely to spend more time trying to stop Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson or Rudd than him.

But there’s one more snag he must overcome. According to conventional wisdom, it would be near impossible for a politician to go straight from the notoriously difficult health brief to leader. That’s why many had tipped Hunt for a promotion in the reshuffle. However, by rewriting the rulebook and speaking frankly on the issue of health funding, Hunt is showing us that anything is possible.

• Katy Balls is the Spectator’s political correspondent


Katy Balls

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jeremy Hunt is the longest-serving health secretary? How did that happen? | Katy Balls
Despite crisis in the NHS, some ask whether Hunt might one day be party leader, writes Katy Balls, the Spectator’s political correspondent

Katy Balls

05, Jun, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Pity the NHS, but it’s not time to get rid of Jeremy Hunt | Polly Toynbee
The missed targets and overflowing beds are unprecedented, but at least Hunt admits it’s all about money. Two cheers for him remaining, writes Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

15, Jan, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Britain needs a calm and assured prime minister. It needs Jeremy Hunt | Michael Ashcroft
Boris Johnson might cheer us up for a bit, but Tory members must look beyond Brexit for their next leader, says Tory peer Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft

12, Jul, 2019 @12:12 PM

Article image
Would Jeremy Hunt make a good prime minister? Ask a junior doctor | Stephen Fabes
As someone who witnessed his terrible record as health secretary – causing the only strike by doctors in 40 years, bending facts and losing trust – I’m shocked by his temerity

Stephen Fabes

29, Jun, 2016 @1:45 PM

Article image
Nurses will be striking for their pay, your health – and the future of the NHS | Polly Toynbee
There is nothing ‘militant’ about demanding less than what you were paid in 2010. The government needs to zip up and stump up, says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

08, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
These brutal cuts to the NHS will haunt the Conservatives | Polly Toynbee
Beyond Brexit, this government has a lot to answer for – an election will do it no favours, says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

25, Oct, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
After Gosport, Jeremy Hunt’s new bill is the last thing patients need | Peter Walsh
Victims and their families of the tragedy need accountability and criminal investigations. As for patient-doctor trust, there’s trouble on the way, says Peter Walsh, chief executive of Action against Medical Accidents

Peter Walsh

22, Jun, 2018 @1:27 PM

Article image
Jeremy Hunt put vital social care reforms on hold – and failed Britain’s most vulnerable people | Andrew Dilnot
Deferring the improved funding system abandons individuals and families needing social care, says Andrew Dilnot, chair of the Commission on the Funding of Care and Support

Andrew Dilnot

17, Nov, 2022 @5:50 PM

Article image
They said we would ‘build back better’ after Covid. What breathtaking deceit | John Harris
Instead of rewarding us for our suffering, Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak are offering nothing but more hardship, says Guardian columnist John Harris

John Harris

20, Nov, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Sorry, Jeremy Hunt – we older people want to work. But bosses just don’t want us to | Dorothy Byrne
The chancellor says that Britain needs us oldies back in employment, but the discrimination we face is an outrage, says Dorothy Byrne

Dorothy Byrne

01, Feb, 2023 @8:00 AM