NHS finances report has sparked harsh words and debate amongst the Commons health select committee. It’s nothing less than a pre-campaign car crash

By the time you read this George Osborne’s budget may have transformed your personal or professional finances. Or not.

By the same token, David Tredinnick, Tory MP and doughty champion of alternative medicine, may have transformed prospects for the pre-election publication of a controversial report on NHS finances. That’s unlikely too.

‘Select committees do good work. What happened here was a pre-campaign car crash’

The 11 MPs on the Commons health select committee were due to meet again yesterday afternoon to see if there were enough votes and goodwill to agree a final draft of their otherwise routine annual report on health and social care expenditure.

They have been taking expert evidence from many sources, including unions, for months.

But, as you may have read, a week ago there was a row between normally consensual colleagues. Led by Valerie Vaz, Labour members were offended by what they saw as a one sided version of the coalition’s stewardship drafted by chair, Sarah Wollaston, and her clerks.

Harsh words

Tory MPs were offended by many of Vaz’s 40 proposed amendments and Labour’s uncompromising tone.

Harsh words were exchanged. Tory MPs say they offered the usual horse trading, to present both sides of the evidence and minimise any sensitive commentary so close to an election when the NHS will be a battlefield.

But Labour colleagues seemed determined to block publication because the evidence didn’t support what Tory Charlotte Leslie calls Labour’s “Armageddon narrative” that privatisation is rampant, extra charges loom and the US/EU trade deal threatens the NHS.

‘NHS will be an election battlefield’

Instead, the draft noted, administration costs are set to be halved (to 2.7 per cent) from what they were in 2009-10 – and other things that NHS England’s Simon Stevens told MPs in evidence.

“But there was plenty of evidence both sides could have used for their own advantage,” says one partisan.

Just to complicate things when it came to a vote, Tredinnick (now trying to make amends) was absent. Lib Dem Andrew George, a critic of coalition health policy, abstained in protest at Wollaston’s attempt to vote for her own report (the chair only has a casting vote).

Labour prevailed 4-3 over Leslie, Andrew Percy and Robert Jenrick to block publication.

On the offensive

So far, so what, perhaps? Small war in committee. But the offended Tories went public. Their points (Leslie calls it ” a minority report”) were leaked to The Spectator and picked up by the Tory papers (“Labour held back ‘too positive’ report”).

Leslie, an NHS consultant’s daughter, wrote an outraged account for ConservativeHome, the grassroots website.

“Something important died that day last week,” she proclaimed. It was the role of select committees to ferret out evidence based policy successes and defeats in a dispassionate fashion.

‘It’s safe to assume the report will be redrafted after 7 May by whoever gets elected’

Steady on, Charlotte. It’s not that serious. Select committees, reformed in 2010 and much more assertive, do good work, yours included.

What happened here was a pre-campaign car crash – high stakes on both sides and, dare I add, a committee with few old local action group members.

Wholesome Dr Wollaston, Totnes GP/MP selected as Tory candidate by an open ballot, is famously non-partisan. Ex-chair Stephen Dorrell would probably have handled it better.

Assuming yesterday’s session hasn’t brought peace (Andrew George was planning to vote with Labour) it’s safe to assume that the report will be redrafted after 7 May by whatever colourful combination of MPs get elected.

More worrying is whether the spat impacts on Wollaston’s standing as a respected chair.

As for Simon Stevens’ evidence, would it undermine this former Blair and Milburn aide’s relationship with an incoming Labour government, if there is one? They’re two hypotheticals we don’t need to answer now.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian