Why are former health ministers being so noisy in these turbulent times? No, I do not mean Frank Dobson’s spat with ministers who want to eject better-off people from council flats like the one opposite the British Museum which he has occupied for decades.
Personally, I don’t think Dobbo (1997-99) has much of a case, but the tabloid uproar proves that Labour VIPs can’t win, whether they behave like him or, more grandly, like Tony Blair.
Either way, it’s not our problem, whereas the manoeuvres of John Hutton, Stephen Dorrell and – most conspicuously – Alan Milburn are.
As you must have noticed, Milburn (1999-2003) launched a spectacular broadside against the Cam-Clegg retreat on the Health Bill.
He called it “the biggest car crash in NHS history”, one which will stall vitally needed reforms begun with Milburn’s own “devolutionary journey”.
Andrew Lansley could have quietly continued it instead of ineptly launching a “privatisation revolution and free-for-all competition”, Milburn told the Telegraph.
Glad you got that off your chest, Alan. But Dorrell’s (1995-97) motives are also opaque. What’s his game, people keep asking? At least John Hutton (No. 2 for much of his seven – 1998-2005 – years at health) is more straightforward.
As author of last year’s pensions review he simply warns Unison’s Dave Prentis and fellow union leaders gearing up to lead industrial action that if most of us are living longer – 13 years more for retired teachers – we must pay in more and retire later. Strikes “will not make hard choices go away”.
He’s right, though we can argue over details designed to save us from the Greek fate in 20 years’ time: Hutton may be less lovable than Dobbo, but he’s better at maths. But is he or ex-flatmate Alan Milburn deliberately making Blairite trouble for Ed Miliband or John Healey as he develops his own NHS reform package?
No, I don’t think so, though Milburn did not warn them. Another ex-health minister I bumped into snapped: “Milburn’s just trying to impress his lucrative private sector contacts.”
Wrong too, though he’s busy in Australia this week. The ex-flatmate’s target is a mouthy coalition which spent years abusing Labour for cowardice, but now flees from “hard choices” when things get tough.
Last week it wobbled on NHS reform, this week on women’s retirement age. Despite the advance publicity, I suspect Cameron will wobble over his long delayed “Big Society bill” to entrench patient and parental rights over public services.
Why? Giving people the power to mess things up is overrated and, as Milburn wrote, will cost George Osborne money. Just look at how voter power delays hospital closures, a topic edging its way back on the radar.
Dorrell’s case is the most delicate. He is always publicly loyal to his party, but his health committee reports have gently undermined Lansley’s bill. Does he want the job?
No. When asked, mild mannered Stephen says things like: “I am happy with the job I have”. But he does not quite pass what I called the Sherman Test.
Ah, have I never mentioned it? It’s handy in assessing pledges in all walks of life. William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91) was perhaps the greatest general in the American Civil War, so, knowing the voters’ weakness for politician soldiers, the Republicans offered him their presidential nomination in 1884.
“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected,” Sherman replied. It’s as watertight a “No” as you will find. Mr Dorrell doesn’t seek or want the job. But, if nominated, he would serve. It won’t happen, says me. But I’ve been wrong before.