The muted colours belong in a Belgravia hotel. The sofas plump. The double glazed windows, hung with tasteful curtains, block out the noise and bustle coming up from the street.
In the corner a desk, forensically clear. Elegant pictures hang from the walls.
It was in the middle of the junior doctors strike, 2016. I’d been streaming, live on the picket lines, spent hours on SoMe and written myself to a standstill… ‘this will only end when people talk to each other, and mean it’…
The strike had been running for weeks, positions had become entrenched. It was getting acrimonious.
‘What do you think…’ he asked.
Where to start.
I’d been invited to spend half an hour with the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt. Yes, he knew I called him The Tinkerman. Yes, he’d read, if it dragged on, I thought he’d have to give up and let someone else try and fix it.
He took it on the chin.
I told him, as straight as I could.
Many of the JDs I’d spoken to were very committed to what they saw as an injustice and they were right.
Other JDs chanted ‘It’s not fair and it’s not safe…’ but when pushed, they weren’t clear what wasn’t fair or unsafe.
The dispute was complex. The public didn’t understand the detail and neither side had spelled out their details. There was no clarity.
The frontline though Hunt toxic.
He listened, thoughtfully. A strike in the NHS on his watch… not good. But, to be fair, he had little room for maneuver. The Cabinet, the Treasury, gave him little wriggle-room.
I suggested a trusted white-knight might be able to shift things. Meeting over with a polite handshake.
As I stepped out, onto the pavement outside Richmond House, a JD protest was setting up. Chairs and a pasteboard desk. Banners flapped in the wind. It was a miserable, wet day. They looked forlorn.
I took out my iPhone and broadcast live, on Periscope. They wanted Jeremy Hunt to ‘come down and meet them’.
As I recall, he invited them in.
The strike dragged on. The White Knight didn’t make headway. I was puzzled.
It was a left to a leak, to the HSJ, to make things clear. Messages between the BMA, JD leadership spelled it out. They didn’t want a resolution, they wanted the strike to drag on beyond Xmas and into the upcoming EU elections and referendum. It was political.
The JD’s had a beef but most of them didn’t want to be manipulated. The BMA was split and public sympathy was wearing thin. The JDs returned to talks and the strikes ended.
Only yesterday were they finalised.
No18, in his leadership bid, has had the neck to take the credit. Some leader, some neck. There are still gaps in the rota. Still not fair, not safe?
Hunt inherited health at the worst possible time. The system broken by Lansley’s lunacy and crippled by austerity.
By the end of his tenure he delivered more funding. No18 has hinted that accolade is his. Is the money enough? No.
He quietly visited scores of Trusts, no press. He worked on the wards and with the porters. Drank tea with managers and spent time with the patients.
Like many of us, I think, when he opened the lid on the tin marked NHS, was mesmerised and amazed at the commitment, dedication and vocation of everyone involved. Service is seductive.
He said health was his last big job and clung to the brief in two reshuffles. Brexit resignations reduced May to a ‘D’ team cabinet, shipped in No18 and move a reluctant but loyal, Hunt to the Foreign Office.
He held health for longer than anyone. Not every day was a success, not every initiative worked, but with no money and no parliamentary time, he could only tinker. Success was hard to define.
As I write this Hunt is on my telly, making his Tory leadership bid. He says;
‘… a serious moment, calls for a serious leader.’
Is he… serious? Yes. He doesn’t speak with a loud voice. He is not a bombast. A conference rabble-rouser.
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
The Tinkerman may be about to find out.
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Reproduced at TrainingPrimaryCare.com by kind permission of Roy Lilley.