March 17, 2011 by sharonbrennan
I would love to be a fly on the wall in the Government’s health department at the moment as the department’s policies have recently been attacked from all directions. Health charities, coalition MPs and nationwide GPs have very publicly criticised different aspects of the Government’s health policies and I would think that Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health, will probably spend the upcoming weekend contemplating how much longer he can cling to his post.
To give you some background, Lansley was Shadow secretary for health for ten years before the Tories formed a Government last year. It seems that spending such a long time in a single role in opposition has left Lansley with incredibly ambitious ideas that seem one step removed from the practical reality of a country with a shaky economy. Indeed so protective has Lansley been of his department, rumours have been circulating that it has isolated itself from all other Government offices. A BBC World at One report earlier this year revealed that Cameron has increased the number of policy advisors at Number 10 so he could get a better understanding of the health policy that Lansley has been guarding behind closed doors.
Back in 2001, Britain was starting a decade of cheap credit, low cost of living and continuous growth. As the decade progressed, Lansley could be forgiven for thinking our country was stable enough to allow for the biggest reorganisation of the NHS since its inception in 1948. However, so keen is Lansley to unleash plans that were so long in the making, he seems unwilling to recognise that the country is very different to what he had envisioned. Lansley’s NHS reorganisation is meant to cost anywhere between £1.4 and £3 billion pounds – and with the UK supporting a massive deficit it is no wonder the nation is wondering if we can afford these changes right now. Moreover the meltdown of the UK banks has left our country more political. Whereas in the good years we might have been too busy buying expensive clothes on credit and binge drinking away our weekends to criticise our politicians, in our current sober times more and more British people are vocally questioning Government policies.
Yet despite this climate, Lansley announced a “revolution” of our NHS when he released his department’s NHS white paper last July. As doctors, health charities, journalists, patients and opposition MPs have begun to understand the implications of this white paper, the dissent has slowly risen. Even Cameron’s direct media intervention earlier this year to help ‘sell’ the Government’s NHS white paper has done little to assuage mounting criticism. Cameron may now be calling the NHS changes an “evolution” instead of a “revolution” but many still believe his NHS proposals are leading us down the road of privatisation.
And so to this week. The British Medical Association called an emergency meeting, the first for 17 years, in which GPs voted in favour of the motion that Lansley entirely withdraw the Health bill currently going through parliament and halt reorganisation plans. In separate news, on Monday six health groups refused to sign up to the Government’s ‘responsibility deal’ on alcohol saying that the voluntary measures do not ask enough of the drinks industry. Don Shenker, Chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said that the Government’s public health policy’s “first priority is to side with big business and protect profits”. Finally, Lib Dem activists have voted overwhelmingly to reject the Coalition’s NHS reforms as they believe they are unjustified and will be highly damaging.
So where to now? My feeling is that David Cameron will fall back on his old PR background and consider that the way to win round voters is to alter the presentation of NHS reforms. And perhaps he will conclude that Andrew ‘Revolution’ Lansley is now too toxic a figure to be spearheading such divisive changes. Such a move would suit Clegg as well who, after the fallout of tuition fees, has to show his party that he has listened to their doubts. So I think Lansley’s days are numbered and if rumours on Twitter are to be believed a possible replacement might be Grant Shapps, currently the minister for housing and local Government.
But Clegg and Cameron should be warned. A change of Minister might win them some breathing space but they will still have a case to answer as to where the electoral mandate is for such reforms. Neither the Tory or Lib Dem manifestos mentioned such sweeping changes to the NHS, and the Coalition document was also silent on the issue. Lansley may well be forced to fall on his sword but that sword is razor sharp and capable of taking many more victims.