Jeremy Hunt has overtaken Aneurin Bevan to become the longest serving Health Secretary and is set to become the longest serving Health Minister over Norman Fowler in June. Following widespread rumours that he refused to step aside at the last Cabinet reshuffle, and himself successfully pushed to redefine his Department as the Department for Health and Social Care, many are wondering if Hunt is actually more powerful than May?
Hunt has repeatedly spoken out on the need for more money for the NHS, most recently on Peston on Sunday when he said this would have to come from an increase in taxes or from the proceeds of economic growth. These are the sorts of conversations which should be taking place round the Cabinet table, not on national TV, yet May does not even seem to have rebuked Hunt, and there is no question of her removing him from the Cabinet. Contrast this to the treatment of Owen Smith who was removed by Jeremy Corbyn from post as shadow Northern Ireland Secretary shortly after he called for a second referendum on the UK's exit from the EU.
At a time when the NHS is dominating public discussion (as much as anything can besides Brexit) and when reports of new funding for the NHS are being bandied about, Hunt’s position seems stronger than ever. His calls for increased funding for the NHS appear to be putting Downing Street under pressure to overrule the Treasury and to find more money. This would be unprecedented given the current messaging coming from the Treasury, and spending restrictions on all other Departments.
Looking at potential replacements for the PM, at Cabinet level almost all have an Achilles heel; personal scandals, poor performance, slip ups and in some cases small majorities. Yet from all of these potential leaders-in-waiting (and granted the Party might skip a generation as and when a leadership election comes), Hunt stands out. Whilst he has come under consistent criticism from many health professionals he is widely acknowledged as getting on with the job, and remains highly regarded within the Government. At one point his leadership odds were longer than an A&E waiting list in a cash strapped Foundation Trust in the middle of winter, however in Westminster there are whispers that he might be slowly emerging as a credible leadership candidate. Even in this time of political turmoil and uncertainty who would have predicted a year ago that we would now be saying that?