John Maples is not a happy man. Though he gets tipped (sometimes) as one of the successes of William Hague's soon-to-be-reshuffled team, he is still smarting over Frank Dobson's reshuffle of 886 seats on NHS trust boards. Details were craftily issued just as Commons health question time ended.
All the same, the Department of Health press office commandeered a lot of innocent pine forest to get across the message that Dobbo and Minister Milburn have done terribly well on this score, that the trusts are 'now more representative of the communities they serve'. That translates as meaning there are a lot more women on boards - and a lot more as chairs - as well as board members from the ethnic minorities in almost every place there should be: that is, where they are 10 per cent-plus of the area's population.
Laudable stuff, but the battle which is still rumbling on is about the appointment process itself and the way New Labour handled it - less than fairly, Maples insists, if the result is 208 politically active Labour appointees compared with 29 Tories, 26 Lib Dems and four Others. Of the sitting councillors appointed, the vast majority (111 out of 131) were also Labour. If it had happened when the Tories were still in power there would have been a stink. New Labour is still Clean Labour.
I first picked up on the issue in November when I started getting phone calls from the North West, where known Conservative supporters on several hospital trusts felt they were getting a raw deal. The furore ricocheted around the regions, prompting Dame Virginia to intervene at one point. Some Tory MPs' wives who serve on trusts were hard done by, and Dobbo said he wouldn't pick any MPs' wives. Actually he sort of did. Naomi Sargant, who took over from Brian Hill as chair at Great Ormond Street, is married to Lord McIntosh, a minister in the nation's top Sunset Home.
Journal readers know about the row from a News Focus (12 February), which cited the rejection of most Mapleian complaints by Sir Len Peach, the public appointments commissioner who monitors such goings-on in the post- sleaze era. At Westminster, Dobbo's man, Joe 'Enforcer' McCrea, kindly gave us all a Journal photocopy.
Sir Len didn't feel Labour had been over-secretive, though he conceded last summer's DoH circular on upcoming vacancies should have been sent to chief executives of local councils, not to the (mostly Labour) leaders, many of whom did not copy it to Tory and Lib Dem colleagues. When quizzed by MPs recently on that point, Dobbo said it was an official error, not his.
Labour has a partial reply to the broader point: it wrote to all Tory MPs inviting nominations. Among those who did not reply were, yes, Maples J and Hague W. You might also say that, after 18 years, there was a bit of catching up to do, though possibly not that much, since Labour always exaggerated the Tory quango fiddle. Dobson's defence rests on Peach's endorsement.
The problem, in my view, seems to be that Sir Len has not been as rigorous as he might. Indeed, the Commons public administration select committee, chaired by the under-used Rhodri Morgan, had complained about him in my hearing 10 days earlier. Sir Len's notion of 'merit' was judged to be a little too self-duplicating - middle class, middle-aged chaps who recommend other middle class chaps whom they know from the golf course, as I recall.
Mr Morgan, himself a Labour MP, also feels that the current definition of 'politically active' (only 264 of the 886 appointees so described themselves) is too weak. He wants quango appointments vetted as carefully as JPs' jobs are, which means that passive party membership would count. God only knows what that criterion would throw up.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We shall see if the new boards bring in fresh air or stale prejudices to what is an onerous and increasingly burdensome task in the era of PFI and tight budgets. John Maples is still corresponding with Len Peach over process, which Sir Len is now auditing.
Meanwhile, the secretary of state has had a letter reminding him he promised not to 'replace Tory deadheads with Labour deadheads' on trusts. It came from a self-confessed deadhead who'd lost his seat and wanted another. Dobbo noted the name for future promotion. Humour is a reliable way to his heart.