I bumped into Andrew Lansley in the Palace of Westminster this week. “Are you sleeping better now the Health Bill is law?’ I asked.“I always sleep well,” he cheerfully replied without missing a beat. Do you know, I believe him.
A politician who has a resilient temperament is a lucky one. Just contrast that response to the sort of reply Gordon Brown would have given after a month like the one the coalition has endured. Pastygate, Petrolgate, rows and retreats over secret courts, charity and conservatory taxes, what Number 10 is calling an “omnishambles” never seems to stop.
Labour duly acquired a 9 per cent (42:33) lead in Tuesday’s Populus poll, although optimists like Lansley will take comfort from the fact that he and healthcare are no longer the headline grabbing issues they were and that voter approval on the NHS is only 1 per cent down.
The health secretary is daily beset with hostile media, but it is chancellor Osborne’s budget that continues to unravel.
There’s a danger here that voters may write off the coalition as hopelessly weak and divided, much as it did Brown by 2008 or John Major after the 1992 financial crisis. This column is a “keep calm” zone and believes it’s too soon to say. A more subtle criticism asserts that voters still don’t know if David Cameron is an anti-Establishment radical, son of Thatcher, or a gentler, more traditional Tory, Macmillan Mark II.
Which template does Lansley best fit? “Thatcherite” cry vociferous critics. I’m not convinced. Under pressure he can be testy, though less combative than his deputy, Simon “Smoker” Burns, to whom he usually delegates the rough stuff at health questions while cherishing micro-detail in person.
At the last such session, his nominal Lib Dem ally, Jo Swinson, asked him to restate his departmental responsibilities before unexpectedly demanding action against the growing misuse of anabolic steroids by body-building blokes. Lansley was on top of the facts (the Home Office is restricting their illegal import) but his answer on post-reform responsibilities is worth quoting.
“My responsibility is to lead the NHS in delivering improved health outcomes in England; to lead a public health service that improves the health of the nation and reduces health inequalities; and to lead the reform of adult social care, which supports and protects vulnerable people,” he replied.
I’d call that more Harold Macmillan than Maggie. Yet this week we heard from the former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, that laissez faire attitudes towards public education by the new Lansley regime in the 2010 pandemic scare led to greater risk of fatal flu among patients.
That sounds more Thatcherish, although Lansley loyalists suspect it’s just an outbreak of self-aggrandisement by their old colleague.
Where does the secretary of state’s refusal to do more to curb what the royal colleges are again calling “irresponsible marketing” by the calorie-soaked food and drinks industries fit the template? Why so tough on tobacco, but not crisps or soft drinks, he was asked the other day. Because there are “reasonable levels” of crisp or drink consumption – but never of tobacco, was the puritan’s reply. Harold or Margaret? You decide.
We also learned this week that ministers will require GP commissioners to embrace pre-existing trade union terms when they take on primary care trust staff who might otherwise claim costly redundo.
It’s not the free hand they were promised, but a sensibly pragmatic response to a brush with reality. Despite her reputation, Mrs T was often pragmatic (but it’s a secret).