The healthy choice
21 July 2003
Now concentrate for a minute, because this will get confusing. I am meeting Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (or Philip Hunt, as he introduces himself in true 'please be my friend' politician style) in his new guise of adviser at Beachcroft Wansbroughs, the firm headed by Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE (or David Hunt).
Now, Lord Hunt of Wirral - let's call him Hunt A to be clear - is the Conservative peer who held posts in both the Thatcher and Major Governments.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on the other hand - Hunt B - is the Labour peer who resigned from his post as junior health minister in March over the war on Iraq. This is the one John Prescott famously insulted on The Today Programme with the words: "I don't know who Lord Hunt is. He is obviously a minister of Government."
Tales of confusion abound: invites to Conservative Party retreats have ended up on Hunt B's desk; Hunt A was mistakenly called to Downing Street to become a Labour whip and found himself taking calls of condolence when Hunt B resigned.
But the two are great friends, it seems, despite sitting on opposite sides of the house - so much so that Hunt A wasted little time in offering non-lawyer Hunt B a nice consultancy number working with Beachcrofts' health and social care division.
Of course, the hire fits superbly with Beachcrofts' strategy. The firm is masterminding a massive push to cash in on the latest reorganisation of the health service - one of the largest transformations since it was established. For a firm with more than 200 NHS organisations on its client list, Hunt B is a spin doctor's dream come true.
From NHS manager in the 1970s, he became the first director of the National Association of Health Authorities (now the NHS Confederation). He ran it during the Thatcher and Major years, but was always a Labour man. Enobled in 1997, he became health minister two years later with a portfolio covering pharmaceuticals, IT and prescription fraud.
As a very active member of the House of Lords, who is still 'in' with those shaping Labour health policy, Hunt B gives Beachcrofts the edge over its health sector competitors. The Conservative Party may be preparing to give the Health and Social Care Bill a bloody nose in the autumn, but Beachcrofts has both ends of the political spectrum covered.
So, does Hunt B miss his ministerial office? "I'd be preparing to take the [Health and Social Care] Bill through Parliament in the autumn. That's exciting and very stimulating," he answers.
He also regrets not being there to see the rolling out of the £2bn IT programme that was his pet project. "It's very intense, very enjoyable, but I don't miss everything. It's a very tough life," he says. "You need stamina. There's a lot of drudge as well. If all the time you're speaking for the Government, that does put big pressure on you."
On Iraq, he shocked many when he decided that he could not fall into line. Hunt B is better known as a New Labour technocrat, a managerialist who has moved with Labour down the market route to NHS reform, than for the kind of controversial behaviour expected from Robin Cook or Clare Short.
Ensconced in a Beachcrofts meeting room, he comes across as calm and sensible, only occasionally twirling his designer frames between thumb and forefinger.
Like any good politician, most of what Hunt B says sounds good at the time. It is only afterwards that I realise I have little idea what he really thinks himself. This textbook political persona and his textbook political career make it hard to understand why this very clever man walked away from the ministerial job that was such a fitting pinnacle to his career, over an issue of conscience. His wife probably raised an eyebrow too. "I didn't tell her [I had made up my mind] until afterwards," he says. The high drama of Cook's resignation speech the night before acted as a final spur after weeks of soul-searching.
"My main reasons were around preemptive action," he says. "Hans Blix should have been given more time. I haven't really moved away from that."
For a moment, Hunt the idealist shines through. "If you don't agree with the Government on such an important matter, it's not really feasible to stay a member of it.
Realistically, you're always going to have some issue [with Government policy]. You have to accept that. It's a corporate entity you're signing up to. But this is such a critical foreign affairs issue. The consequences will stay with us for a long time."
When we meet, Labour MPs still smarting over the war have already given Blair's flagship reforms a rough ride in the House of Commons. Former international development secretary Clare Short led 62 Labour MPs in a revolt to eliminate foundation hospitals from the bill. Ministers saw their majority slashed to just 35, with the rebel amendment defeated by just 286 votes to 251.
But Hunt B is not with the rebels on this one. "Labour MPs are unhappy about things [at the moment]. That may change by the autumn," he says. "There's a good case for foundation trusts. I think that's got submerged. It's up to ministers to get the right message over to people."
At Beachcrofts, Hunt B will particularly support the firm's focus on these new entities. The team is already assisting prospective NHS foundation trusts as they plan for the likely requirements, opportunities and risks of the new regime. It is not difficult to see how this well-known and respected figure will appeal to Beachcrofts' existing and potential client base as it grapples with what is the 30th reorganisation of the health service.
"Where I think I can add particular value is helping to explain the political context in which these big changes are taking place," he says.
Hunt B confesses that he had never read a bill before taking his seat in the Lords in 1997. "I'm not alone," he adds. "But the law is increasingly impacting on the NHS and its business. The more I can help the NHS understand the legal context the better. In the end it means better patient care."
So is he ready to trade the company of Whitehall mandarins for that of lawyers? He grins. "The House of Lords is stuffed full of lawyers. I'm well used to them and their ways."
For Beachcrofts, no doubt he will be well worth the extra confusion.