Who is the most powerful person in government at the moment? In normal times, the automatic answer would be the Prime Minister, but things are rather more complicated at the moment. Theresa May’s stock has risen in recent weeks, thanks to her confident handling of the Salisbury attack – and partly because Labour is in a terrible mess. But today we learned a little bit more about quite how influential one of her ministers has become.
The Prime Minister spent this afternoon giving evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee, the powerful group of select committee chairs who grill the Prime Minister periodically. She was in her usual defensive mode of not giving anything away for much of the session. But then, towards the end, she announced that the NHS would be getting more money. This is what the Prime Minister said:
‘We also need to, I think, get away from the annual approach we see to the NHS budget and recognise that for the NHS to plan and manage effectively we need to get away from the annual top-ups and have a sustainable long-term plan and that should build on the work of the five-year plan.
‘This year and in advance of next year’s spending review, I do want to come forward with a long-term plan. I want that to be done in conjunction and provide a multi-year funding settlement consistent with our fiscal rules and balanced approach. Ensuring the NHS can cope with demand ahead of the spending review. I would suggest we can’t wait until next Easter.’
This is exactly what Jeremy Hunt has been calling for, and marks a significant victory for the Health and Social Care Secretary. He has been in the job for long enough to know what he is talking about (never a given with Cabinet ministers, given the churn in government jobs), and is outwardly very loyal to the Prime Ministers he’s served. He isn’t a political operator in the sense that he’s not constantly plotting against colleagues, but he is ambitious and may well still harbour leadership ambitions.
May, like Cameron before her, has trusted Hunt to know the job and get on with the job. But he was not flavour of the month in Number 10 after he refused to move in the reshuffle. That he has secured extra money for the health service and a promise of a long-term settlement shows how good an operator he is.
But Hunt has something May doesn’t, which is a vision for the NHS. Perhaps May might be more ambitious if she had a parliamentary majority, but if she really wants the health service to be, well, healthy and sustainable, then she cannot just think in terms of money.