In conversation with Andrew Neil at a Spectator event this evening, Jeremy Hunt defended the principle of increasing taxes to pay for more spending on the NHS. He warned Tories unhappy with the idea that if in an election you offer voters a choice between a low taxes at all costs party and decent public services, they’ll vote for decent public services. He said that this extra money for the NHS was needed to deal with a ‘once in a generation change in demography’ and that it was important that the Tories show the public they are on the right side of this argument.
In language reminiscent of David Cameron, Hunt declared that ‘as a Conservative I want to say it is not a choice between lower taxes and decent public services: you can have both’. He argued that economic growth and sound management of the public finances made that possible. He was, though, strikingly quick to point out that the ‘only public service the British public are prepared to pay more tax for is the NHS’—an answer that will leave ministers in other spending departments wondering where they can get any extra money from.
Hunt was keen to set out his Conservative vision of public services. He said that he had grown up in a Conservative household, but his father had always told him that one of the great things about the country was that everyone could access good healthcare. He tried to differentiate his views of public services from Labour by saying that ‘We as Conservatives understand that public services aren’t just about money but excellence’.
As the longest health serving health secretary in the history of the NHS, Hunt knows his brief better than most Secretaries of State. He set out how he wanted to bear down on two particular areas of NHS waste, inefficient IT systems and the failure to focus enough on prevention. He predicted that ‘changes in healthcare in the next 25 years will be as transformative for humanity as the Internet has been in the last 25 years’ and will lead to lots of people being treated before they even display any symptoms. Interestingly, he also wants us to have our genetic predispositions on our medical records to help doctors with diagnoses.
No political meeting these days is complete without discussion of Brexit and the Tory leadership. On Brexit, Hunt said the country had chosen in the referendum the ‘bold path’, not the cautious one, and it was now the politicians’ job to make that work. He suggested that one of the main reasons why Theresa May spoke about a Brexit dividend when it came to NHS funding was that the referendum had shown that voters wanted more spent on this public service. When Andrew Neil asked Hunt if he still thought being Health Secretary was the last job he’d do in British politics, Hunt smiled and said ‘maybe’. He then went on to say that that this was precisely the wrong time to talk about leadership because Theresa May was negotiating for the country. But it would now be a surprise if Hunt was not a runner in the next Tory leadership race.