Business Secretary Greg Clark was set to be offered the post of Health Secretary until Jeremy Hunt refused to move, HuffPost UK can reveal.
Theresa May had hoped to engineer a job-swap in which Clark took charge of NHS policy, while Hunt applied himself to a beefed-up role to help British firms prosper post-Brexit.
But Hunt’s insistence that he wanted to stay in an expanded role as Health and Social Care Secretary persuaded the PM to reappoint both men to their current posts.
Clark is respected and well liked by many in Whitehall but has faced vicious briefing from some insiders in Government and Downing Street, amid claims that he lacks a high public profile or media skills.
Yet HuffPost understands that far from seeing him as a liability, May felt that Clark would be a safe pair of hands at the Department of Health after Hunt’s turbulent five-year reign.
As it is, Hunt – who also rejected plans to replace First Secretary of State Damian Green in a cross-Whitehall backroom role - is now on course to become the longest-serving Health Secretary in history.
He will surpass the tenure of NHS founder Nye Bevan in a couple of months and by the autumn will have outlasted Tory predecessor Norman Fowler, who has the record of being in post for five years and 272 days.
One factor bolstering Hunt’s insistence on staying in post was the fact that the NHS is currently in the middle of one of its most challenging ever winters.
A lack of beds and the threat of flu outbreaks have forced the cancellation of routine operations to avoid chaos in hospital A&E departments.
It remains unclear what new powers Hunt will get with his new ‘social care’ title. The Department of Health is already responsible for most of the sector, although councils were passed control of community care budgets years ago and former Cabinet Office minister Damian Green had a cross-departmental role on funding the policy.
Hunt has long insisted publicly and privately that Health Secretary is likely to be his “last big job in politics” and his declared it his “mission” to get the NHS fit for the 21st century.
Some Tories believe that he could even become Tory leader to succeed May if he manages to turn the NHS round, possibly with extra investment if he wins a battle with the Treasury.
Being seen to stand up to the PM -and to junior doctors - has won him credit among some backbenchers, while others have noted his new-found enthusiasm for Brexit.
Clark, who was swiftly reappointed by the PM after a cordial meeting in No.10 on Monday, will now focus on delivering the Government’s industrial strategy and on reassuring business about Brexit plans.
Clark has proved crucial in offering Japanese car manufacturers and other international investors reassurance that there will be transitional deals with the EU and moves to keep Britain open for business once it quits the EU.
Many business insiders welcomed his reappointment yesterday. And the Yorkshire Post praised the decision to keep Middlesbrough-born Clark at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, declaring “he’s one of the few top Tories who understands the North and social mobility”.