They say you can’t keep a good man down, well you certainly can’t keep a persistent one down, and I’m amused to report that one of this column’s favourite recurring characters is back after a brief sabbatical in the Foreign Office. Not content with being the longest serving Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt has now been elected chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee for Health and Social Care.
The progression is not without precedent: Stephen Dorrell made the same journey, but there was a respectable 13-year gap between his leaving office as Health Secretary in 1997, and taking up the chair of the select committee.
What alarms Hunt’s critics is the sheer velocity of this particular revolving door. It is barely 18 months since he checked out of the Department of Health, and there is a not unreasonable suspicion that the temptation to protect his record might lead to a major conflict of interest. As Labour MP Jess Phillips put it: ‘I have no idea how Jeremy Hunt can properly scrutinise the government on health policy and practice when much of it will have been his doing.’ Another unnamed MP put it more waspishly: ‘Hunt will clearly be marking his own homework.’
And yet as a reluctant member of the unpopular ‘Don’t Under-rate Hunt’ club, I feel compelled to put the other side. He was in many ways, an innovative and a quietly effective Health Sec, and his pronouncements on patient safety and the need to find a cross-party consensus on social care indicate he will bring this energy to the role.
But the stakes are high, at a time of great change in providing health care. Can Hunt rise to the challenge, and honestly acknowledge the shortcomings in his previous work? The whole NHS will watch with interest.