To be frank with you, I’d never heard of David Bennett before he was unexpectedly promoted to become the new chair of Monitor, as it evolves into the economic regulator to the entire NHS. Truly this is a real-life version of Eric Carle’s children’s story The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Guess who’s the new part-time butterfly?
Mr Bennett used to work for McKinsey, the cult management consultancy which is currently trying to develop ongoing partnerships within the NHS family. He ran delivery for Tony Blair at Number 10, a focus that became ever more important, but was not very political, ex-officials recall.
“At meetings I attended he was more of an efficiency man rather than a vision or politics guy. It’s a good appointment, he’s a safe pair of hands,” says one Labourite. Don’t see too much in another Blairite, Lady Sally Morgan’s, appointment to run Ofsted, the schools regulator. David Cameron is still a Tory, they’re just smart people.
The Number 10 context is worth noting here. Cameron wanted to avoid duplicating Blair’s instinct to drive policy from the centre, but has realised he needs more experts, albeit not political appointees.
Pollster Andrew Cooper is taking over strategy, the BBC’s Craig Oliver is taking over Andy Coulson’s communications job and another man I’ve not heard of, KPMG’s Paul Kirby, will run policy under Steve Hilton, Dave’s T-shirted guru.
As people queue up to remind me, Cameron still lacks a health expert indoors, a Simon Stevens or Paul Corrigan. Someone equipped to keep an eye on Andrew Lansley when he does another quiet U-turn, as he did over competition-by-price the other day, the week’s really big news. Dave’s rapid abandonment of forestry sales shows he’s learning. Kirby, incidentally, is a big payments by results man.
But what does David Bennett’s appointment mean? My political friends think the striking detail is not that he used to work for Blair. It is that he publicly voiced objections to the competition-by-price policy to NHS reform and still got appointed.
Why? The job had been all but promised to Monitor’s Bill Moyes, who was shortlisted along with Bennett and Zenna Atkins, the outgoing Ofsted chair, but the panel recommended Bennett as the better candidate and Lansley accepted his department’s Sir Humphrey-like guidance. Did he have a choice?
One theory is that Oxford based Bennett sees his new £57,000, two days a week job as very hands-off and would leave the heavy lifting to Monitor’s new chief executive. Step forward, David Flory, the DH’s finance boss? Flory would recruit DH internal staff, and be accommodating to Lansley’s “guidance” (curiously, the bill currently says “direction”) and to Sir David Nicholson’s fatherly wishes at the commissioning board, goes the theory. All very cosy.
I know, I know. Ministers insist that price competition has never been their policy, which is merely to continue with Andy Burnham’s maximum price policy of 2009. Nicholson’s very long clarification of that misapprehension on 17 February is just that: clarification.
Yeah, right, as the kids say. Plenty who “misunderstood” have evidence to support the U-turn jibe, as well as that price competition damages quality. Bennett was one of them. “Price competition should be done very carefully. My expectation is that it would emerge in a very limited way and very slowly,” he told the MPs examining the Health Bill shortly before the U-turn.
Labour insists that Burnham’s direction of travel was from average price to best practice price and that it never happened. Nor did Labour envisage a world without PCTs and SHAs to steer HMS NHS, adjust its cash cargo and keep the ship on an even keel.
The complaint is that Lansley has the ship at sea with the painters and riveters still working away.