Dorrell, Milburn and other grandees find their voice about their parties’ policy directions, piling unhelpful headlines on the current health incumbents as they gear up for the general election
Would it be naive to imagine that a former health secretary confessing his party’s been getting health policy badly wrong might be news in an election run-up?
No. But the naivety on my part this week has been to imagine that Stephen Dorrell’s public condemnation of Andrew Lansley’s 2011 reforms could be judged at least as important as Alan Milburn’s criticisms of Labour’s retreat from competition.
‘Burnham is cross critics have created unhelpful headlines, but pleased with results so far’
Since the press decided to make Liz Kendall famous, it has been an extraordinary week: satisfaction with the NHS rising alongside scare stories.
Fleet Street highlighted loyal Liz’s interview with Westminster’s The House magazine, in which she combined loyalty to Andy Burnham’s integrated care agenda with a less helpful stress on the value of private and voluntary provision. Some pundits detected a post-Miliband leadership bid.
Spectres of Kinnock
But it didn’t stop there.
Milburn, the Blairite health secretary from 1999 to 2003, popped up on BBC Radio 4 to warn against a “pale imitation” of Neil Kinnock’s losing 1992 campaign.
Labour shouldn’t make the “fatal mistake” of being a party “that would better resource the NHS, but not necessarily put its foot on the floor when it comes to reforming”, he said.
‘People who matter in the NHS have been pretty positive about Burnham’s plan’
In a public speech Milburn also rejected the privatised utilities model - once backed by the Tories - as the wrong approach for the NHS.
But Ms Kendall joined those saying their ex-colleague was “plain wrong” because Labour remains pro-reform.
Alas, Milburn and his old flatmate, former health number two John Hutton, penned an article urging Miliband to better defend the Blair/Brown economic record - 11 years of steady growth upended in 2008 by a private debt spree.
Exhausted yet? Probably.
Lord Darzi popped up on BBC2’s Newsnight to say the issue is quality of care, not who delivers it. So did academic adviser Julian Le Grand. Alan Johnson (2007-09) piped up to warn against knocking the NHS. And Lords Prescott, Kinnock and Hattersley predictably hit back for “older Labour”.
It was a shambles that has left shadow health secretary Andy Burnham feeling frustrated at colleagues - but not his friend Kendall - who seem to play the Tory media game.
‘There was no Blairite plot - Milburn’s BBC interview was recorded days before it aired’
He feels he has worked hard, consulted widely and listened, to deliver a credible plan with Miliband’s support that is true to NHS values, but still reformist - one that is committed to integration and personalisation of budgets and services.
People who matter in the NHS have been pretty positive about the plan.
So he is cross that party critics have generated unhelpful headlines, but still pleased with the outcome so far.
The plot thins
For his part, Milburn is frustrated too. There was no Blairite plot - his BBC interview was recorded days before it aired - but he doesn’t want Labour to disavow its own reforming NHS past. It makes too easy a target, as current health secretary Jeremy Hunt routinely shows at Andy B’s expense.
‘Dorrell despairs of phoney NHS “angel on a pinhead” disputes in the coming campaign’
He thinks Hunt is doing quite well as a calming Dorrell to Virginia Bottomley’s Lansley, but is astonished that politicians on both sides have let a mere official make most of the running on health policy and budgets - in public too. Take a bow, ex-Milburn adviser Simon Stevens.
Dorrell is speaking out because he’s retiring. His admission that he opposed Lansley’s unnecessary “massive reorganisation”, but voted for it, is hardly news. But nor are Milburn’s criticisms.
As he heads for a health consultancy, Dorrell also despairs of phoney NHS “angel on a pinhead” disputes in the coming campaign. They all know what needs to be done. That won’t make you popular either, Stephen.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian