Charming, pragmatic and someone staff can do business with, or a puppet devoid of radical ideas? Oliver Evans takes soundings on what Alan Johnson will bring to his brief

Even before Alan Johnson was confirmed by Number 10 as the next health secretary, the biggest health unions had made comments to the media that went beyond the customary welcome given to each new secretary of state.

'He is someone we can do business with,' said Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, using the same words the union used to back Mr Johnson's failed bid for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

'[His appointment] presents staff, patients and government with a clear opportunity to make a fresh start.'

Next with a welcoming statement was the Royal College of Nursing, no friend of the government after this year's staged pay award, but this time optimistic after dealing with Mr Johnson as work and pensions secretary.

General secretary Peter Carter said: 'We have gone on the record publicly to praise Mr Johnson's even-handed and open-minded approach, which led to a landmark deal to safeguard the final salary pensions of existing NHS nurses. We hope that Mr Johnson will show that same approach on NHS pay.'

It is no surprise then that 57-year-old Mr Johnson is of union stock - he was the youngest-ever general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers on appointment in 1992 after five years as a full-time officer.

He made another small mark on the history books in 2004 when he became the first ex-union general secretary to join the Cabinet in 40 years. This has raised hopes that Mr Johnson can bridge the gap between government and those staff and patients whose faith in the NHS has plummeted.

NHS Alliance chief officer Michael Sobanja says: 'He has a reputation of being somebody who accommodates people's views. That is important in the health service at the moment.

'He has some public service experience, which can only be helpful. His frontline background is certainly of significance.'

John Restell, chief executive of Managers In Partnership, part of Unison, says: 'The message coming through the unions is this is a guy who can work with staff groups. He has the ability and skills and is going to need them because staff morale and engagement is at rock bottom.'

'Trade unionism is in my blood,' Mr Johnson said during the deputy leadership contest, where he finished second with 49.6 per cent of the vote compared with winner Harriet Harman's 50.4 per cent.

The former postman has said: 'I joined the union on my first day at work and held virtually every elected position up to general secretary.

'I owe much of who and what I am today to the trade union movement. It educated me and gave me political direction.'

And in a statement that may alarm doctors, he told the BBC this year: 'We have listened a bit too much to the British Medical Association and not enough to unions like Unison.'

Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall and one of Mr Johnson's 45 backers for the deputy leadership, says: 'He will have a much better understanding of the ethos of public service and the need to boost morale among very hard-working and particularly low-paid staff.'

His humble beginnings - by his teens an orphan and a school leaver with no qualifications - put him in good stead to reach out to the front line, she says.

She adds that his varied experience, including three ministerial positions since entering the cabinet in 2004 (see biography below), have given him valuable experience.

'Alan is someone who has worked his way up through the political process. He knows what it's like to have nothing and he is going to be much better in dealing with some of the trade union issues because he understands the trade unions.'

New kid on the block

The Londoner will be a marked improvement on Patricia Hewitt, says Ms Hoey, whom she is 'absolutely delighted' to see the back of. She adds that Mr Johnson is 'a much better negotiator and much better at being able to generally listen and not patronise'.

Commentators cite the deal Mr Johnson brokered on state pension as an example of his sure footing with unions.

This saw him reach an agreement under which public sector workers get their pensions at 65 and not 60 - but those already in the scheme can still withdraw their pensions at 60.

As head of the CWU, Mr Johnson is also widely credited with forcing the Conservative climbdown over the party's plans to privatise the. Post Office.

But there is no doubt he is a modernising Blairite and not a stalwart of the old left.

In fact, he is widely regarded to have been the only major union to leader to have championed the abolition of clause IV of the Labour Party constitution in 1995.

In a letter to colleagues seeking support in the deputy leader race, he insisted he was 'not an unquestioning sentimentalist - agreeing with a proposition because it happens to be made by a trade union leader'.

He told Today in May last year: 'The idea that you get to a plateau after about four years of reform and then you have a land of milk and honey is a mistaken notion.'

Responding to questions on the Labour Party's website during the deputy leadership race, Mr Johnson was certainly on message - even with the now accepted mantra that there is a long way to go to convince the public of improvements in the NHS.

He said: 'Generally speaking, I believe the government has been spot on with its changes to the NHS. The new builds were absolutely imperative to solving the problems that plagued the Tories, such as shortages of hospital beds and ever-increasing waiting lists.

'We could have done more to change the electorate's perception, but changing the NHS itself was a far more urgent priority. We can be proud of our transformation of the NHS, and over time, I think the electorate will be proud of it too.'

Liberal Democrat shadow health secretary Norman Lamb, who faced Mr Johnson across the chamber when he was the party's shadow trade and industry secretary, says he found him 'reasonable', partly because of Mr Johnson's 'dislike of tribal politics'.

But Mr Lamb says: 'He has no reputation for new thinking, radical new thinking. One would conclude that Brown's judgement is there is not too much wrong with the NHS, it is just how you communicate the achievements better. I don't think we are going to see any radical change from Alan Johnson.'

As a 'charming man and a good communicator', Mr Lamb says he would describe him as 'a working class version of Tony Blair'.

But a Conservative MP who has faced down Mr Johnson in the past is less kind. He says: 'Most ministers, Tory or Labour, are mouthpieces for their departments who don't think for themselves - and Alan Johnson is more of a puppet than most.

'He's a feather for each wind that blows. He is a typical politician of our age - he will regurgitate whatever is the safe view of the senior civil servants who run the country.'

Barry Sheerman MP, Labour chair of the Commons education and skills select committee, defends Mr Johnson's reputation as a Blairite.

He says: 'He is totally atypical in the sense he is a self-made man if you compare him to a lot of people you associate with Blair, who come straight out of university, high-flyers. I don't think you could describe him as a typical anything, he is one-off.'

On news of his appointment last week, campaign group Keep Our NHS Public excitedly flagged up an answer Mr Johnson gave them during the deputy leadership contest.

The group said he 'must act on concerns' he expressed about the use of the private sector. In fact, the answer he gave was prosaic. The quote cited as a break with policy was: 'The party has a responsibility to monitor the success of its changes, and if outsourced services do not perform, we must act.

'Private sector innovation and competition can be beneficial, but the social conscience of the public sector should be preserved too.'

The old left

Labour's old left should not get too excited about having a former comrade stalking the corridors of power. Former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union Sir Bill Morris, an ally from the tells before the abolition of clause IV, told HSJ Mr Johnson is a pragmatist.

'He knows the world doesn't stand still. The frontiers of medicine and patient expectations are being pushed back every day.'

'He is not bereft of ideas. He is a doer, he will roll his sleeves up and get on with it.'

But Sir Bill, who Mr Johnson placed as the top endorsement on his website in the leadership contest, believes the new health secretary will be eager for stability after three years of changing jobs from secretary of state for work and pensions to trade and industry to education and skills and now health.

He says: 'I think he would have liked to have had a sustained period with a particular portfolio. That would have given him time to assess the long-term needs of the sector, drive his own responses to the problems.'

Getting to grips with the legacy of the last two years is a priority for Mr Johnson. But he's had plenty of practice of picking up briefs.

And this time, at least one element won't be new to him. When he took up the trade and industry portfolio in 2005, his predecessor was. Patricia Hewitt.

Biography

  • Born May 1950, his father leaves when he is eight and his mother dies when he was 12. Raised by his sister.
  • Educated at Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea. On leaving school at 15 he stacks shelves in Tesco.
  • oins the Union of Communication Workers on becoming a postman in 1968.
  • Elected chair of the Slough branch of the UCW in 1976 and to the national executive council in 1981.
  • Appointed a full-time UCW officer in 1987 and general secretary in 1992.
  • Elected MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle with the 1997 Labour landslide.
  • Appointed minister for competitiveness at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999.
  • After the 2001 election made minister of state for employment relations and regions at the DTI.
  • Becomes minister of state for lifelong learning, higher and further education at the Department for Education and Skills in the 2003 reshuffle.
  • Joins the cabinet the following year as work and pensions secretary.
  • As Labour reaches a third term in 2005 he. is made trade and industry secretary and education secretary a year later.
  • Appointed health secretary on 28 June 2007, the day after Gordon Brown becomes prime minister.