Saturday, February 11, 2012

Milburn machinations show governnment's desperation

Back in 2003, I went along to a Downing Street press briefing along with the rest of the Westminster media corps expecting to be given details of Tony Blair's latest Cabinet reshuffle.

We emerged 20 minutes later with the very surprising news that the health secretary, Alan Milburn, had resigned from the government, saying he wanted to spend more time up North with his young family.

The sudden departure from government of the then Darlington MP, who until then had been widely tipped as a future candidate for the party leadership, was possibly the most unexpected resignation of the Blair years.

But for shock value, it would have paled into insignificance if this week's rumours about a Cabinet comeback for Mr Milburn - in the very same job he abruptly left nine years ago - had actually come to pass.

The story went that a newly-ennobled Lord Milburn would be brought back by David Cameron to push through the health reforms that Gordon Brown succeeded in blocking nine years ago.

The Prime Minister would then be able to claim - as he already has with Michael Gove's education reforms - that he is merely carrying on the work that Mr Blair and New Labour began, thereby strengthening his claim to the political centre ground.

It seems likely from what has emerged this week that this bizarre proposal was at least discussed at some level in Number Ten, even if those discussions didn’t actually get as far as Mr Milburn himself.

But the fact that such a conversation could even take place at all is an indication of the mess that the Coalition has got itself into over its own attempts to reform the NHS - and in particular the position of the current health secretary, Andrew Lansley.

Government colleagues of Mr Lansley were pulling few punches this week as his flagship Health and Social Care bill suffered another mauling in the House of Lords.

“Andrew Lansley should be taken out and shot. He’s messed up both the communication and the substance of the policy,” a Downing Street source was quoted as saying.

Of course, had Mr Cameron wanted to get rid of him, he had a perfect opportunity to do so last week with the mini-reshuffle sparked by the enforced resignation of the energy secretary Chris Huhne.

But as I have noted before, the Prime Minister hates reshuffles, having apparently been warned against them by former Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, and for now, Mr Lansley retains his “full confidence.”

To those of us who have been following the progress of the government’s attempts to introduce greater competition into the NHS - and hand over the running of it to reluctant GPs - none of this should have come as any great surprise.

Mr Cameron has been warned on several occasions that the reforms, which are opposed by just about every leading professional body within the service, risked becoming his Poll Tax.

His apparent obduracy over the issue is all the more surprising in the light of his determined efforts before the last election to “detoxify” the Tory brand when it came to the NHS.

As the Conservative Home website pointed out yesterday; “David Cameron’s greatest political achievement as Leader of the Opposition was to neutralise health as an issue. The greatest mistake of his time as Prime Minister has been to put it back at the centre of political debate.”

Plans are now being laid for a debate at the Liberal Democrat spring conference which is expected to result in fresh calls for the bill to be scrapped, if it hasn’t been already by then.

And Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has shrewdly called for cross-party talks on a compromise deal which could see the non-contentious parts of the bill covering public health, social care and GP commissioning kept, while scrapping the bits relating to extending the private sector.

It is understood that this option is now being seriously canvassed within the government, but if adopted it would of course represent a complete humiliation for the health secretary.

When Mr Milburn walked out of the health department, Westminster was genuinely stunned. The greater surprise this time round would be if Mr Lansley stays put.

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