Well, well. What a turbulent week for health politics and it is not over yet. By the time you read this, a day or so after I have typed it, Alan Johnson may still be the new home secretary.
Or he may be on the rocky road to becoming Labour’s prime minister in waiting after a dramatic Gordon Brown resignation.
As regular readers know, my money has always been on Brown staying put in the Number 10 bunker until election day, whenever that turns out to be (6 May 2010?). I may be wrong, now or shortly (remember Maggie’s fall), but intend to stick with my hunch. No handbrake U-turns in this column.
In any case, we can be sure that Andy Burnham will still be the new health secretary by the weekend and, I can safely predict, until election day.
Kevin Barron, chair of the Commons health select committee (who also thinks Brown will hang on) is a fan, although Barron feels his age (so do I) in young Andy’s company: he’s 39.
From Barron’s perspective here is a bright, personable young man with a serious future in Labour politics when (if?) the party recovers from the looming electoral car crash. A former aide to Tessa Jowell and adviser to Chris Smith, briefly parliamentary officer to the NHS Confederation, MP for the safe (?) Lancashire seat of Leigh since 2001, Burnham has risen rapidly through the ranks.
A stint on the health committee, unpaid parliamentary private secretary to David Blunkett, then Ruth Kelly, junior home office minister in charge of ID cards (will it help him handle NHS IT?), then minister of state at Health in 2006. A year later he was made Alistair Darling’s No 2 at the Treasury, but barely had time to unpack his sandwiches before being reshuffled off to Culture, Media and Sport in January 2008.
A lovely job for a sports buff, but he has not had much time to make an impact. Nor will he at health. The new secretary of state did not answer my text enquiry, wise chap.
But Andrew Lansley, facing his latest opponent, did reply. Here goes: “He’s a nice guy, some experience of health, but unfortunately as minister of state he showed he didn’t have any clear vision. He was rapidly promoted, then over promoted. Now circumstances conspire against him. Good or otherwise, with the Labour government as it is, he cannot hope to make any progress.”
Sharp, but not unkind, I’d say.
After all, Lansley is still waiting (at 52) to be any kind of minister.
Where does that leave Comrade Al in the pantheon of health secretaries?
Middle ranking, I’d say. Contrary to claims, he loved the job and was especially proud of his three year pay deal with the unions (which won’t be unpicked?) and his cost cutting one with the pharmaceutical industry.
What else? He has got a long list of things quietly done while not indulging in what aides call “chest beating” - not his style. Progress on commissioning and towards a more “appropriate and sustainable partnership” with the private sector (better competition rules, a shared regulator etc); strengthening of payment by results; better workforce training; developing community partnerships.
I was never convinced Johnners was a Luddite on NHS reform (indeed people like Ken Livingstone call him an “über-Blairite” which is why even Ken is backing Brown) and waiting lists have fallen on target during his watch as the disputed choice and proactive health agendas steadily grow.
MRSA, mixed wards, healthier lifestyles, there were battles won and lost. They will continue under Handy Andy.
If Johnners had raised his flag against Gordon it might be all over. He didn’t: healthy lifestyle in action.