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Editorial Wednesday 14 October 2015: Sympathy for Jeremy Hunt

Since working out yesterday that Sun King Simon Stevens is now the de facto Secretary Of State For Health and Jeremy Hunt is NHS director for patient safety, I've had an odd sensation bubbling through my giblets.

No, it's not wind. I've been feeling sorry for Jeremy Hunt.

And to be frank, it feels a little weird.

Firstly, I've never yet felt much empathy with any health secretary (or indeed their shadows). It's a supply and demand thing (yes, like the NHS clinical workforce). There's been no market for sympathy: no call for it.

Alan Milburn and Dr Liam Fox were both designed to repel sympathy at 100 yards.

I rather liked Glaswegian hard-man Dr John Reid, who once ruffled my hair at a conference. That said, you'd no more have felt sympathy for Dr Reid than you'd have asked him to dance to the Scissor Sisters with you. It would have been a category error.

Patricia Hewitt's manner, and in particular her Roedean, 'you're remedial' voice was just plain offputting. Which is a shame, as she did make an honest effort to do some difficult things over service reconfiguration. She didn't attract sympathy either.

There was Andrew Lansley. Dear God, there was Andrew Lansley, one of whose enduring achievements is to have left people well-disposed to Jeremy Hunt for the sole reason that he wasn't Andrew Lansley.

Alan Johnson was a thoroughly affable bloke, but his core mission to get the NHS off the front pages and reported (if at all) as a 'news in brief' item on page 10 showed a little too clearly. AJ didn't call for sympathy, either.

Then there was The Mascara Kid. But I was brought up not to speak ill of the politically dead (albeit I failed spectacularly over Andrew Lansley).

John Healey was a nice chap, who gave it a go, but health really wasn't his forte.

And now there is Jeremy Hunt. His gradual move towards the exit is being accompanied by a measure of kicking and screaming, according to sources who have to work with him. It's a shame, because he developed a reputation as a courteous and fairly genial guy.

Okay, he's sometimes come across as a slightly more human, less Vulcan version of John Redwood, but he's loosened up a lot. Particularly the servos that operate his arms. Though the code's still a bit bugg-y sometimes.

And it would take an ideologue of stone to ignore the fact that he has shown a commitment to patient safety that has gone beyond merely politally weaponising Mid-Staffs against The Mascara Kid (which he has of course done).

Of course Mr Hunt does this: he's a politician. Sadly, he's not quite been smart enough to catch himself in his contradictions: decrying Labour's attempts to politicise problems in the NHS, while immediately afterwards going "the NHS in Wales! The NHS in Labour Wales!".

Demarcation and globalisation
So my sympathy for Jeremy Hunt has to do with him losing the job of Health Secretary to Simon Stevens. Of course, he still has the job title, but that doesn't keep a chap warm at night. (Unless like me, you are the Chief Inspector Of Chief Inspectors: the money may be rubbish, but the hours are good).

Demarcation is part of Jeremy's problem. All the bits that used to be the fun aspects of being Health Secretary - sacking chief executives, being grumbled at by Oxbridge-educated caucasians on the Today programme, planning exciting new redisorganisations of the NHS, arguing with the Treasury for more cash - have been put into others' job descriptions. We have Monitor and the CQC to sack chief executives nowadays, and for the rest, well, Simon's in charge.

Globalisation is something Jeremy warned about at the Conservative Party conference: are we prepared to work as hard as the Chinese and Americans? (As the founder-member of Lackadaisical Families, I evidently hope not.)

The Conservative Party's offshoring health policy to Simon Stevens has left Jeremy in a scarcely tenable role. One mandate to write a year? Simon Stevens could knock that out in fifteen minutes.

So I feel sympathy for Jeremy Hunt for much the same reason the Pope wears boxer shorts in the bath. Neither of us thinks it seemly to look down on the unemployed.