news focus: The independent-minded Scottish health minister will be thrust into the firing line as he implements a tough agenda. But Malcolm Chisholm's appointment is a popular, if surprising, move, says Jennifer Trueland

Published: 06/12/2001, Volume III, No. 5784 Page 14 15

The last time HSJ interviewed Malcolm Chisholm, then Scotland's deputy health minister, an aide entered the room to say there was a phone call. He wouldn't have interrupted, the civil servant said, but it was Susan Deacon, the health minister, on the line.

Quick as a flash, a nervous Mr Chisholm jumped to his feet and left his office to take the call.

On his return, a few minutes later, he smiled, apologised, said he supposed HSJ would think badly of him for interrupting the interview and give him a bad write-up as a result.

That was a just a few weeks ago.

How things change. Now Mr Chisholm is health minister and his former boss Ms Deacon is on the backbenches.

If that appears a rapid turnaround, cast your mind back almost exactly four years. Back then Mr Chisholm was also a junior minister, this time in the predevolution Scottish Office.

Like many of the left, he couldn't stomach the Labour government's plans to change benefits for lone parents. Unlike many, he resigned his post on principle.

It was thought then that the former English teacher, who had entered the Westminister Parliament in 1992, had burned his boats as far as a ministerial career went - particularly as his criticism was aimed at a policy championed by chancellor Gordon Brown, who many say still regards Scotland as his fiefdom.

But with devolution came a fresh start. Mr Chisholm was elected as MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith, the constituency he had served as a Westminster MP.

At first he was a backbencher, seen almost, even at the age of 50, as a kind of elder statesman figure.

He sat on the health and community care committee, where he served as deputy convenor. He was, it is no exaggeration to say, a mollifying and encouraging presence, whose views were regarded with some respect in the crossparty forum.

In November 2000, he was made deputy health minister.

Since then, Mr Chisholm has done a lot of Ms Deacon's donkey work. He has been the one who has stayed late in Parliament to respond to members' debates on subjects as wide-ranging as the problems of rural pharmacists and mental health issues. He has also sat through innumerable meetings of the health and community care committee, responding to their line-by-line scrutiny of legislation and amendments.

Importantly, however, he was also widely seen as having pulled the Scottish Executive out of a bit of difficulty over long-term care for elderly people.

He led the care development group, set up to see how free personal care could be implemented (as recommended in the Sutherland commission report).

The group's conclusions have been broadly welcomed, north of the border at least, taking Scotland in a markedly different direction on this issue to the rest of the UK. This obviously brought approval from those who had campaigned for free personal care, including the increasingly powerful elderly lobby.

In the health service too, he was held in some esteem. One senior manager remarked privately that it was Mr Chisholm's willingness to work under Ms Deacon that made her appear (relatively) credible in their eyes.

Doctors and nurses have also made positive noises.

The Royal College of Nursing, in particular, which recently called for Ms Deacon's head, is sure to be delighted by Mr Chisholm's elevation.

Of course, approval has not been universal. Last Wednesday when the new first minister, Jack McConnell, was introducing his new team to the Parliament, Scottish National Party health spokeswoman Nicola Sturgeon made a strongly worded objection.

Mr Chisholm's performance as deputy health minister had been terrible, she claimed. He deserved to follow Ms Deacon out of the door rather than getting the top job.

There has been some speculation around Mr McConnell's decision to offer Mr Chisholm the post.

The more uncharitable (including Ms Sturgeon) have said it is a reward, on the grounds that Mr Chisholm pulled out of the leadership race.

He had indicated that he would stand as a 'unity' candidate when it looked as though Mr McConnell would have competition from Wendy Alexander. She said she wouldn't stand and, at the last minute, Mr Chisholm said he did not have enough support to go forward.

Others believe that it is his credentials as a respectable member of the left which have brought him on.

Mr McConnell's new cabinet is significantly further to the left than that of the more New Labour Henry McLeish. Crucially, apart from the enduring presence ofMs Alexander, it contains no real friends of Gordon Brown.

But Mr Chisholm's conscience could yet cause him some dilemmas. It is widely believed that responsibility for asylum seekers was shifted to another minister because he did not agree with the voucher system.

And while he has not been as outspoken on the private finance initiative as, say, the new education minister, Cathy Jamieson, the concept does not sit well with leftist ideals.

He is also unlikely to want to follow health secretary Alan Milburn into a concordat with the private sector, however open to such things Mr McConnell appears to be.

Labour sources say Mr Chisholm got the job because he is an experienced minister who has shown he can drive through the Executive's agenda. Privately they admit that it helps that his conciliatory manner has made him popular with both the health professions and the public.

Implicitly, this suggests that while the leadership thought Ms Deacon was doing a good job, she wasn't necessarily seen in that light in the NHS or by the public at large.

His well-known independence of mind should also help put paid to the accusations of cronyism which are currently sweeping Holyrood. 'You can't say he's put a 'yes' man in the job, ' says one source.

But does a leader really want someone independent on his team, particularly a leader who has conspicuously appointed his closest allies straight from the backbenches to the cabinet?

Time will tell if Mr Chisholm been thrown into the toughest job in government so that he can be sacrificed if winter doesn't go well.