We learn the art of telling tall stories not long after we can talk, but most of us promptly grow out of it. My daughter recently swore blind she hadn’t wrecked her brother’s Lego: “it wasn’t me, mummy, it was an invisible alien who came through the window” – dramatic pause – “I saw him.”
Jeremy Hunt already has an impressive a track record in five-year-olds’ doublespeak. There’s the ‘commitment’ to seven-day services, backed up with neither the funds nor staff required actually to deliver them. And there’s that enigmatic door of his, so publicly open to junior doctors, and yet so firmly shut to all of us (save, that is, the pair of doctors who were briefly invited inside last week in a PR stunt aimed at saving Mr Hunt from further embarrassment by the protesting doctors camped out on his Departmental doorstep).
But this week, the man whose linguistic gymnastics are legendary has surpassed even himself. Jeremy Hunt, once so hell-bent on imposing his hated contract that he referred to imposition as his ‘nuclear option’, wants you now to believe he’s never actually sought to impose a contract at all. That’s right. If you thought the following sentence from our Health Secretary – “be in no doubt: if we can’t negotiate, we are ready to impose a new contract” – meant that Mr Hunt intended to impose a new contract, you would be completely and utterly wrong. Deluded, actually. No doubt thanks to the BMA, who are so adroit at Ninja mind-games, they’ve turned grassroots doctors like me into malleable simpletons.
Mr Hunt’s dramatic U-turn on his repeated threat to impose his contract, broken by the Guardian, has arisen from a court case mounted by grassroots junior doctors against him. They believe they can prove he has no legal basis upon which to make his threat, and has acted unlawfully by pretending to be able to exercise a power he never had. Caught on the hop by the legal challenge, Mr Hunt’s only get-out is to persuade you that he only ever wanted to ‘introduce’, not impose, the new contract. So very benign, so innocuous-sounding.
Alas, this attempt to rewrite history is undone by his pumped-up pursuit of his political legacy. We all have our personal foibles and one of Mr Hunt’s, like many politicians, is his desire to be seen as the tough guy. Vladimir Putin achieves this with great effect by killing bears, Ukranians and going topless, but Mr Hunt has chosen the slightly less visceral sport of stamping on junior doctors. ‘I have never crumbled in any of the challenges I have faced as Health Secretary,’ he said recently to the Mail on Sunday. ‘There’s no point doing this job if you aren’t up for the fight.’
And that’s the crux of this sorry saga. It is Mr Hunt’s wanton belligerence that created this debacle, and which will prove now to be his downfall. So ‘up for the fight’ has he been, he is on the record in speeches, interviews and even in Parliament justifying contract imposition ad nauseum. Those four strikes – every one of which we longed not to take – were a direct result of the fear and despair he sowed among doctors by constantly threatening imposition.
If Mr Hunt seriously wants to try and deny ever having a strategy of imposition, he now needs to answer directly to the 50,000 patients whose operations were cancelled. He owes them, and us, an urgent explanation. And he’s going to have to make it convincing. Because the general public, I have no doubt, believe in invisible, Lego-wrecking aliens about as much as I do.