Tory attempts to 'expose' wrongdoing in the government's handling of NHS board appointments have fallen flat.
At first glance last week's Conservative assault on health secretary Frank Dobson's NHS board appointments looked explosive: allegations of political manipulation, secret deals, patronage, incompetence, the promise of an inquiry. In the end it was a damp squib.
Tory spin led us to believe Mr Dobson had been caught red-handed, as it were, booting out deserving Tories and replacing them with stooge Labour councillors. All would be 'exposed' said the Conservative Party press release, and the appointments commissioner Sir Len Peach would conduct a 'full inquiry'.
Things looked a little different when Sir Len's letter to shadow health secretary John Maples, which the Tories had mysteriously neglected to attach to their press release, was published by Mr Dobson a few hours later. It revealed that Sir Len had rejected most of Mr Maples' complaints and entirely cleared Mr Dobson of personal wrongdoing.
Sir Len delivered a barbed riposte to Mr Maples' claim that trust boards were being packed by councillors, mostly Labour: 'The secretary of state will surely argue that he has tapped a previously neglected source of candidates who will compete on merit for appointments.'
The problem for the Tories - who in their day had been criticised for appointing too many businessmen - was the risk of appearing as the pot that called the kettle black. And ultimately their attack foundered on sheer lack of hard evidence.
Mr Maples' first argument, that the government had breached the code of practice on appointments, was underpinned by a leaked letter to local councillors from the chair of North Thames regional office, Ian Mills.
Mr Maples quoted: 'The secretary of state anticipates that this request for nominations, and the new guidance on community representation, is likely to lead to a significant increase in local authority representation.'
This, argued Mr Maples, implied Mr Dobson had wanted more local councillors on boards, but had neglected to make this explicit, in breach of 'Nolan' rules. 'The policy of appointing more councillors was a secret policy, never made public,' he said.
Sir Len was not impressed. 'The Labour Party election manifesto committed the government to making NHS boards more representative of communities they serve and one mechanism for doing this was for applications to be judged on merit in competition with nominations from local authorities among others.'
Mr Dobson had made it clear in a letter to MPs of all parties in June that nominations were being sought from councils, said Sir Len. Mr Dobson had not tried to reserve board seats for councillors. Mr Mills' letter made it clear that jobs would be independently and openly assessed.
Mr Maples' second complaint was that there were delays in the appointments process which were disrupting trust business, and embarrassing 'a number of chairmen awaiting reappointment (who) believe their reputation is being damaged by this delay'.
Sir Len replied: 'This is not a new argument or problem though the combination of a new government, inexperienced ministers, changed competencies and huge number of appointments to be filled within six or seven months of an election has put a substantial extra strain on the system within the NHS.'
Mr Maples did hit the target with a third complaint. The letters to local authorities in June were addressed to council leaders. Most councils are under Labour control, he argued, and he had identified at least 54 councils whose Conservative group leaders claimed they had not been consulted over nominations.
This, said Mr Maples, was evidence of political manipulation. 'Unless Tory and Liberal Democrat group leaders are actively consulted, the process will inevitably lead to a preponderance of Labour appointments.'
Sir Len referred this to the new Department of Health permanent secretary, Chris Kelly, and extracted from him the following grovelling apology: 'The draft letter which the department provided to regional chairmen... for the 1997 round of trust appointments was addressed to the leader of the council concerned and did not make clear that it was our intention that the minority parties should be consulted. This was clearly an error, as we quickly realised.'
The draft letter, wrote Mr Kelly, had been 'approved and prepared by officials, without the involvement of the secretary of state or other ministers'. It was re-addressed to council chief executives for future trawls, and was 'no reason to question the quality' of the June round of appointments.
Sir Len concluded this was a 'communications failure on the part of officials'. But he is to test Mr Kelly's claim by auditing 'the process by which local authority members were nominated, the competition to which they were exposed and the evidence... that they were appointed on merit'. His report is due in May or June.
The Tories listed 28 chairs who they claimed had been dismissed for 'political reasons'. They offered little evidence, although it is clear many of the 'victims' feel they were treated shoddily.
Ann Galbraith, ex-chair of Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary, found out she was not staying on in a phone call from her successor - but only, says Northern and Yorkshire regional office, because as a personal friend he told her informally first.
Lady Helen Gardiner, chair of Surrey Ambulance trust, would also appear to deserve better. Rejected by Mr Dobson in November despite being the only shortlisted candidate, she was then invited back in January because no one else could be found to match her experience.
There is, as Reigate Conservative MP Crispin Blunt points out, an element of the 'shambolic' about the Surrey case, if not the whole process. The actions of council leaders are also open to question. But unfortunately for the Tories, there is no evidence of political conspiracy.